2011 was a bad year for the sisters, one plagued by injuries and losses, and is the main focus of “Venus and Serena.” During nine months of that year, Baird and Major had serious access to the athletes, when Venus had an injury in her hip muscle and was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome and Serena was still going through rehab for a foot injury. Venus was pulling out of matches and dropping in the rankings, ending up at No. 29, and Serena missed the entire French Open after suffering a hematoma and a pulmonary embolism. It seemed, perhaps, like the sisters’ age and constant play had finally caught up to them: Both at around 30 years old, was it finally time for the Williams sisters to take a bow?
But Baird and Major make the case that not only were the Williams sisters not about to be down and out (which we also know now, of course, since Serena is currently ranked No. 1 and Venus is ranked No. 21 by the Women’s Tennis Association), but they simply couldn’t be given how hard they worked as children, how much their father shaped their lives and their game, how much of an impact they’ve made on the world of sports. Their father, Richard, is depicted as gentle but determined, not open to failure or weakness but willing to work with his daughters to make them winners (as Serena says, “I hate losing more than I like winning”). The sisters themselves are devoted, committed, thoroughly involved in bettering themselves and working with each other. Their support of each other is important, and their competitive nature—even when it is turned against one another—is important. Few other athletes can compare.
And so the narrative of their lives is somewhat expectedly presented: N.W.A.’s song “Straight Outta Compton” plays when we’re introduced to their hard-scrabble neighborhood growing up; we see footage of the little girls, all limbs, competing on a run-down court. Venus was the first one to take to tennis, her father Richard’s “guinea pig” of an athlete, and then Serena became obsessed too, a “copycat sister.” Then they grew so, so famous and so, so respected, amassing 52 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles over the years—but they’re still quite humble, still giggling when Baird and Major ask about romantic entanglements, still amused by their on-court personas, like Serena’s “TaKwanda.” It’s all very glowing and, of course, somewhat surface.
Because there are other issues swirling around the Williams sisters, aren’t there? If you know anything about tennis or about them in particular, you’re aware that Richard is quite often described as a bullying jerk, coaching his daughters to throw matches or do other unsavory, possibly unethical things. You know about Serena’s amazing temper on the court, her inappropriate comments to line judges during matches. You’re privy to the supposedly bad relationships they have with other competitors and journalists and analysts. The rumors have swirled around them for years, but Baird and Major simply brush them off as racism—which, of course, some of them may very well be—but there’s no investigation or exploration or even a few questions lobbed the family’s way.
Nor are there discussions with anyone critical of the sisters; instead, it’s a series of talking heads, of comedian Chris Rock, Vogue fashion editor Anna Wintour, legendary tennis player John McEnroe, even former president Bill Clinton. As they throw accolade after accolade at the sisters, calling them “tennis gladiators,” you kind of wonder where the other athletes are, the other people who can speak specifically to the sisters’ talent. And it’s also a shortcoming that the filmmakers don’t focus on some of the sisters’ projects outside of the court; Venus, for example, has been recognized for her charitable work for years, and yet it’s not discussed here at all.
Nevertheless, for fans of the sisters, this is all very nice, and of course, it’s impossible to disregard the sisters’ achievements—Serena, currently ranked the top singles women’s player in the world, is the oldest woman to achieve that. She’s not going to get worse any time soon, and it’s clear that she and Venus, for what they did for women—especially black women—in professional sports deserve our respect. But “Venus and Serena” is so heavy-handed in its idolization that it becomes less of a documentary and more of a list of reasons for their perfection—the film’s narrow view is its greatest limitation.
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