LAFF 2013: Venus Vs. (***½)

venusvsThere’s no stopping trailblazing filmmaker Ava DuVernay, whose quietly powerful Middle of Nowhere earned her the “Best Director” prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Awards prognosticators and lovers of DuVernay were shocked when the film missed a “Best Original Screenplay” Academy Award® nomination earlier this year. But judging by her recent work, the sharply-focused Venus Vs., it won’t be long before DuVernay is back in the awards spotlight.

Though ineligible for a “Best Documentary” citation due to its television ties, Venus Vs. is a perfect example of a director evolving their craft. DuVernay prides herself on being a strong, truthful voice for the African-American community on film. But with Venus Vs., DuVernay adds a new theme to her trade: gender empowerment. This documentary chronicles the long battle of female tennis players fighting for equal pay, but squarely sets its sights on Venus Williams’ own involvement in the important struggle. Williams, an athlete worth millions, put her own reputation on the line to combat the male-dominated tennis sports establishment that denied these fair earnings. DuVernay presents Venus Williams at her most vulnerable and impassioned, a warrior on and off the court who refused to settle for second at any challenge.

DuVernay starts by taking us back to the beginning of Venus’ childhood. A girl from Compton who only knew how to be herself, Venus Williams’ introverted yet unfiltered demeanor clashed with the expectations placed on star athletes in the tennis sports world at the time. They had to be camera-friendly, easy on the eyes, and behave as white as their uniforms. Footage of a white referee taking off points due to the “distraction” caused by Venus Williams’ hair beads demonstrates the racism and opposition Venus faced, even as a young girl just trying to fulfill her dreams. But even still, Venus’ resolve was as tough as her game. She knew she’d have to reshape people’s attitude towards tennis — the world’s most popular “bourgeois”  sport — in order to evolve their own mentality towards minorities participating in the field. Ava DuVernay uses such archival footage to give us a sense of Venus’ fierce determination, foreshadowing her tenacious insistence on ending the gross injustice of female tennis stars earning less than their male counterparts.

The great Ava DuVernay works her magic again with 'Venus Vs.'
The great Ava DuVernay works her magic again with ‘Venus Vs.’

Aside from interviewing subject Venus Williams, DuVernay also talks with other influential figures that participated in the fight, including legendary tennis champ/activist Billie Jean King and popular tennis star Maria Sharapova. Their participation in the film imbues the doc with a stirring feeling of sisterhood (though a few men did help draft a plea for Wimbledon to end their imbalanced prize money policy), with Venus at its center (literally!) to lead the charge. Venus Vs. is inspirational and informative, but doesn’t try to be a Lifetime movie. And unlike this year’s Venus and Serena doc (which, don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed), Venus isn’t sidelined by Serena’s bigger personality and “easier to market” underdog narrative. In fact, DuVernay doesn’t involve Serena in the project since this specific story of battling adversity is Venus’ alone.

Ava DuVernay had a terrific film crew that helped her with this project for ESPN. Cinematographer Hans Charles’ use of canted angles and off-to-the-side subject positioning recalls Danny Cohen’s work on Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, but with less dramatic flair. Space is key to DuVernay, as it reflects both the interviewee themselves, not to mention it can be used to expand and exhibit the backdrops commonly associated with tennis. The score in Venus Vs. is also quite impressive, as it pumps our adrenaline with uplifting cues that never overplay its hand. The editing work by Spencer Averick is tight and works alongside the rhythm of Venus’ vigorous athleticism. Overall, Ava DuVernay and team have created a gem of a doc with Venus Vs., one that empowers both gender and race with slick craftsmanship and heart.

Venus Vs. will debut on ESPN on July 2nd. Be sure to catch it live or set your DVRs to record the documentary, which kicks off the sports channel’s Nine for IX series. Below you’ll find the trailer for the TV special: