Whatever television special you watched, whatever Wikipedia entry you read, whatever you thought you knew about the most infamous pair of sports siblings in the world, the Williams sisters, is but a small footnote compared to what’s offered in the illuminating documentary from Maiken Baird and Michelle Major. Venus and Serena may be structurally simplistic and often overtly sentimental, but there’s no denying that this thorough investigation of sorts into the lives of two athletic beasts — who cling to each other as fiercely as they do their own tennis rackets — is nothing short of a full sweep. Every personal layer is peeled away, home videos shed light on the birth of two national treasures, and the racial hurdles both women faced in their careers are confronted head-on. More than anything, though, is the realization that athletes are by no means ordinary individuals. They are super humans, so committed to their sport and their conditioning that all else is a galaxy apart. Venus and Serena’s intimate plunge into the minds and lives of the Williams sisters will leave you breathless, inspired, and wishing you too had that same never-ending fuel.
Braid and Major tend to jump back and forth between various time periods in the Williams’ lives, but somehow the disorganized editing doesn’t shatter the documentary’s uplifting spirit. Every time encapsulation brings us closer and closer to understanding Venus and Serena, to understanding the determination and sacrifice needed to become a star athlete. More importantly, Braid and Major communicate the stark differences between the pair of sisters. Because Venus and Serena are so tight-knit and mentioned together in nearly every statement made by the media, I nor the filmmakers fault anyone for their ignorance of just how dissimilar the two sisters are as athletes and individuals.
Venus is methodical, insanely focused, and prioritizes technique over power. She’s also quieter and is less of a social butterfly than her sister Serena. Venus was seen as the prodigal daughter growing up, as she was the oldest and her family’s ticket to escaping the harsh streets of Compton, California. Venus’ father, Richard Williams, figuratively put all his tennis balls in her duffel bag, relying on her and only her to make a name for the Williams family in the hopes that someday the world would see greatness in blackness. After all, tennis was primarily a sport dominated by white males, and the few women that participated in the sport professionally came from across seas, financially backed by their homeland or parents. The media both aided and hindered the rise of Venus Williams. She was the exception to the rule: an African-American teenage girl from Compton, with a wily father filled with pride and unwavering commitment to coaching his prized little girl. Fighting harder than any girl her age — not to mention forgoing a normal childhood in the process — Venus broke racial barriers and changed how the world would regard female athletes. And then there was Serena Williams, in the shadow of her goddess-like sister — but not for long.
If there’s one major flaw in Venus and Serena, it’s that we become more acquainted with Serena on a personal level than her sister. Perhaps it’s due to Venus’ shyness around cameras, but Serena is definitely the “Rocky” underdog of the Williams’ story, whose biography the filmmakers seem to find more compelling. Serena is a beast on and off the field. She’s vehement about her everyday workout, and pushes herself so much that her health suffers because of it. We learn that Serena’s unending drive comes from her childhood. Her father made her train with Venus so that her bigger sister had someone to practice with, and therefore improve her tennis game. Serena was never seen by her family as a star athlete who could live up to Venus’ reputation or overall athletic talent. This pushed Serena to work that much harder to prove to herself and the world that she wasn’t a grade down from the almighty Venus Williams. However, the film drives home the point that there was no animosity between the siblings. In fact, these two understand each other more than anyone else on the planet and never go long without embracing or spending time with one another. Serena was never envious of Venus and vice versa, except on the field when one lost to the other. Serena admits that part of her initial love of tennis came from wanting to bond with Venus and ultimately grow up to be like her big sister. There was no bigger fan of Venus than Serena, but the tables flipped when Serena began winning tournaments and titles that Venus had never managed to. Venus could have easily resented her sister from stealing her own spotlight, but she was proud in the way that a master is proud when their apprentice surpasses them. Venus and Serena is at its finest when it doesn’t propagate the supposed rivalry between the siblings, and instead demonstrates time and again how much love the pair share for each other.
Unlike her sister’s calm and collected approach to tennis, Serena is a bulldozer on the court. She relies on power shots and overall strength to defeat her opponents. Baird and Major skillfully utilize tennis match footage of Serena to demonstrate how racism in the sport runs rampant and unchecked. Referees prey on Serena’s intensity on the court, pushing her to the point where she explodes and threatens to do god-knows-what to them for their bad call. The media then in turn jumps on Serena’s outbursts and paints her as another representative of the “Angry Black Woman” in America. The documentary shows how prejudices and stereotypes prevail even up against the number one female tennis athlete in the world. One moment in particular has your palms sweating in anger, as Serena is thrown the most deplorable insults during a tennis tournament in her home state of California. I applaud the filmmakers for not sugarcoating the experiences of both Serena and Venus, even though the siblings have evolved the attitudes toward black participation in sports.
In sum, Venus and Serena is a tale of triumph, fascinating and informative but never ditching truth for easy tear-jerking. From a technical perspective, it’s not smooth or structurally sound enough to win many awards, namely an Oscar®. The content is all there, but the craftsmanship keeps me from a full-on rave. However, Venus and Serena is one of the few docs that touches on more than just its subject matter, going to deeper lengths to uncover the true definition of an athlete. Venus and Serena Williams are from this planet but walk on Mount Olympus all through life, and we’re just privileged to behold their magnificence.
Magnolia Pictures’ Venus and Serena opens this weekend in select theaters, namely the Village East Cinemas and Magic Johnson Harlem USA 9 in New York, and at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. The film is also available in VOD format, so I implore you to find time to watch out this documentary when able. Check out the trailer for Venus and Serena below: