Sister Act at Deuce
Television and its money have worked wonders to raise sportswomen’s recognition and rewards nowhere more than in tennis. Co-directors/-producers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s Venus and Serena is an up-close and personal look at the title siblings who have made millions dominating that once-exclusive sport, sparked racial pride as well as tensions, and become global personalities.
There had been champions of color before -- Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Evonne Goolagong, Yannick Noah, Zina Garrison. This hour-and-two-thirds does not dwell on racism encountered early on, though prejudice becomes an issue later. And the increased travel mobility and media visibility of this century have magnified the Williams’ presence and personalities beyond those of such earlier players, who of necessity also kept a lower profile.
The documentary does not play the race card as a sole overriding issue. But racism does intrude, for society is far from unaware of race and tempers flare under the intense pressure of individual sport as “players, athletes get frustrated.” Mother Oracene Price says she beaded the young daughters’ braids as a symbol and a reminder, and though coaches, conditioners, trainers and hitting partners are white, the grown girls will not date whites -- “Yuck!”
The issue is undeniably there but is arguably also forced in or exacerbated by father Richard Williams, the most interesting if controversial face in the film. Determined to take no guff from anyone after a childhood amidst violent Louisiana segregation, he set out in L.A.’s downscale Compton to forge world-beaters of the two skinny kids for whom “I had a plan before they were born.” (He sires droves of daughters, and his earlier ones come as later half-sister surprises to Venus and Serena.)
In old home movies and interviews, the stars-to-be are charming, little-kid giggly open. Admittedly in it for the money, knowing zilch about tennis, Richard learned from videos and reading, devised unorthodox training and conditioning regimens, played it by ear, got them all moved to Florida tennis camps, hired and discarded at will anyone who might be useful, and alienated a lot of people including part of his family.
Their names tailor-made for single-name celebrity, the two kids grew “Straight Outta Compton” into super players with intimidating physiques and power. Like many of the famous, they use, or mistake, fame for qualification in other, unrelated fields; this admiring film does not intimate it, but arguably they dilute peak years of talent in chasing outside endeavors, thus perhaps depriving either or both of them of being with no question the most dominant female athlete(s) ever.
Though all claim that animosity directed at them is racially motivated, certainly a portion of it is reaction to the aggressive bunker mentality of Richard. Keeping to themselves and a small posse-entourage, the sisters themselves come across as being as normal as possible for young women who have everything they could conceivably wish for and deny any current need or desire for marriage.
Well-known confrontations with officials and some opposing players on the circuit have drawn adverse publicity and fines. Among the film’s admirably limited number of talking heads -- though why Gay Telese, Anna Wintour, Bill Clinton? -- no less a tantrum expert than “SuperBrat” John McEnroe points out that, for example, Serena’s notorious obscene U.S. Open foot-fault tirade is not, in context, so egregious or unusual.
Concerned with the two as people and friends, the film does not overburden itself with easily obtainable archival public triumphs and defeats. In a loose way, it finds structure in the 2011 season, as no-longer wunderkinder for their sport, Serena and Venus attempt comebacks from relatively lackluster performances and, more, from injuries and potentially life-threatening illnesses like pulmonary embolism and autoimmune Sjogrens’s syndrome. Thankfully, these two Jehovah’s Witnesses nowhere perform the abominable sports ritual of pointing skyward. Through it all, there remains, not sibling rivalry, but a rare closeness, unselfish mutual boosterism and enviable love.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)