What’s left to know about Venus and Serena Williams? Probably not much that the tennis titans would be willing to share, given how heavily exposed they’ve been already, and how eager the press has been to wedge the sisters into ready-made narratives about race, celebrity and the daughters of a Svengali.
The lively if slightly worshipful new documentary Venus and Serena breaks little new ground in this regard. And maybe it doesn’t matter, given the size of the personalities who leap out of the well-rehearsed, up-from-Compton tale of two sisters who took a white, upper-middle-class sport by the ears and shook it hard on their own terms.
For that part, producer-directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major rely heavily on well-known news footage, sprinkled with commentary from celebrities like Bill Clinton, John McEnroe and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who say pretty much what you’d expect them to say about the sisters’ agile grace and disciplined professionalism under pressure.
Comedian Chris Rock nails the sisters’ boisterously uncompromising personal style and pride in their race: “Their braids are not country-club black,” he says. “They are black-black.”
In part that sense of self and heritage, so evident when the Williams women exploded onto the tennis scene in their early teens, comes from the flamboyant father who, for better and worse, shaped their careers. Born into abject poverty in Louisiana, Richard Williams moved to Los Angeles and built his own security company before devoting himself to shaping a gold-plated career for his daughters. We see him admit in a television interview to not being terribly interested in tennis for its own sake.
“I wanted for both of them to become No. 1 in the world,” he says, grinning. That worked out pretty well, but Venus and Serena is also long on the details of how Williams supported, protected, bullied and prodded his two girls into becoming champions.
Barely into adolescence in footage dating back to the early ‘90s, the girls seem none the worse for the intense, unorthodox training regimen their father put them through, which included ballet, jazz and throwing rackets (and, later, pole-dancing), in addition to the rigors imposed by a fleet of top-tier coaches, none more demanding than Richard himself.
A serial womanizer who fathered so many kids that one sister can’t remember all their names on camera, Richard makes for great copy. But Baird and Major also scored interviews with the Williams sisters and other family members, and Venus and Serena is most compelling as a portrait of domestic solidarity. Given the possibilities for friction in a clan divided by parentage, talent, wealth distribution, and the loss of one sister in a Compton shooting, that’s either pretty astonishing or a diplomatic gloss on the Williams family’s internal politics.
Certainly they come across as an intensely loyal gang. Long divorced from Richard, Venus and Serena’s mother, Oracene, remains central to their lives and careers, and the source of their faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses. We see her patiently seeing off idiotic questions from a reporter about “grunting” on the court, and commenting delightedly on the several women who co-exist within Serena — including a homegirl they call Taquanda, who periodically emerges to yell at recalcitrant umpires.
There’s unqualified support from sisters and half-sisters unfazed by an interviewer’s attempt to draw them out on the question of bloodlines and conflict. “We’re black,” says Venus and Serena’s older sister Isha, firmly. “We don’t do that.”
As for Venus and Serena themselves, they seem as tight as two peas in a pod, which is remarkable for siblings compelled by their careers to be partners and rivals all at the same time. Romantic attachments come and go, but Venus and Serena are essentially a couple who live together, work out together, play together and, to judge by this film, would rather spend time in each other’s company than be with anyone else. Together they have somehow figured out how to overcome the fact that Serena, a force of nature who has taken her father’s competitive aggression more fully on board than has her older sister — has achieved more success on the court.
Venus and Serena focuses mainly on the 2011 tennis season, when both were recovering from serious illnesses: Serena suffered a pulmonary embolism, while Venus was diagnosed with Sjogren’s disease. Despite all this, and the fact that the two have hit their early 30s, their astonishing “comebacks” separately and together at Wimbledon and the Olympics make for a triumphalist ending any sports documentarian would pray for.
That’s fun, and watching the sisters’ beauty and casual physical grace on and off the court is always a trip. Yet some will come away thinking that the Williams family has grown so skilled at managing their public image that perhaps no filmmaker will ever get between the cracks.
Me, I wanted to know what these two remarkable young women will obsess about once the whole world has stopped watching, whether they will always be together — and what it would reallyfeel like to be one of their much less famous siblings. We’ll probably never know, except in someone else’s future fiction feature.