[1 July 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I think honesty was really the best way to go.”
“We’re doing our thing and everyone’s doing their thing, and in the end, we have separate results,” says Venus Williams. “Everyone’s a different person with a different heart.” Venus is young in this television interview, wearing the beads that alternately thrilled and worried observer at the time, that marked her difference from other tennis players as well as her pride in that difference. Responding to a reporter’s question about why she seems so “isolated,” Venus—who turned professional at 14—sounds wise beyond her years, thoughtful, politic, and quite aware of her place in a broader context.
This archival look-back comes early in Venus Vs., Ava DuVernay’s documentary about Williams’ effort to equalize tournament compensation. And as it shows Venus’ youthful wisdom, the clip also sets up part of her broader context: she sits on a tennis court beside her sister Serena (also wearing beads), opposite their interviewer, only visible by the blond, straight-haired back of her head. As young Venus says, “Everyone’s a different person,” the scene cuts to Venus now, remembering that then, she was focused on her game: “I was just very quiet,” she says, “I went in the locker room, just did my own thing, sat with my sisters or my mom.”
Saying this now, Venus looks confident and self-aware, a five-time Wimbledon champion who knows how to use the camera, and yet another version of that teenager in the tennis court interview. These versions of Venus and others comprise the story of Venus Vs., which traces the many changes in her relationship to her sport and her ideas about her public roles. The film focuses this story through Venus’ long fight to gain equal compensation for women at Wimbledon, a focus that makes it a terrific first feature in ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series of documentaries focused on women in sports. For as Venus takes up this fight, she is not doing her “own thing” or “sitting with” her sisters and mother, but is instead speaking and acting publicly in order to change an old, unfair system, a system based on established prejudices and privileges.
The film reminds you of how entrenched this system was when 14-year-old Venus came on the scene, as well as how changes to it were both hard-won and complicated. She embodied difference, of course, and also played with a particular athleticism. She was tall (6’3”), powerful, and of course, wore those beads, owning her Compton background even as commentators applied it to her (the film includes a mini-montage of references). As Howard Bryant says, “The game just wasn’t reacting to a player with height and speed and power, it was reacting to a black woman with height and speed and power who was not going to defer to the cultural mores of the time, because that culture did not accept them.”
Using interviews with journalists, other players, and tennis executives, including Larry Scott, Chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association from 2003-2009, Venus Vs. shows her initial outsider’s status in relation to a sport that, as John McEnroe says here—rather artfully—can be viewed as “an elitist sport, a rich man’s game to a degree,” then traces Venus’ increasing “value to the tour.” These changes occur within a context early on made visible by Billie Jean King, when she won her first Wimbledon Championship in 1968. Asked by an interviewer she has any “complaints,” King smiles and says, “I do as far as the prize money, that’s about my only complaint.”
“It’s all about equality,” King adds. It’s also about history and the means of changing it. In 1968, Wimbledon was one of several major tournaments that paid men and women different prize monies, each maintaining that the system was based on women’s tennis not generating the same interest or revenue as the men’s game. This contention is soon enough patently untrue, with the start of the Open Era (1968) and the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association (in 1973), as well as the rising popularity of stars like King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, and the Williams sisters, a popularity underscored when Venus Williams signs a five-year, $40 million contract with Reebok in 2000. She’s only 20 years old at the time, as New York Times’ Selena Roberts points out, the contract making her “the richest woman in sports.”
Still, and even after the other major tournaments adjust their compensation schedules so that men and women are paid equally, Wimbledon refuses to change its prize structure. The argument against equal pay is premised on tradition, and is sometimes conjoined with Wimbledon CEO Chris Gorringe’s infamous dismissal in 1999, “If we pay women more, then we wouldn’t have so much to spend on petunias,” included here, along with several other suggestions that women should “just be happy with what they’re getting.”
Even as these archival shots remind you that it wasn’t so long ago that such presumptions prevailed, the film includes as well a series of imaginatively arranged images, including Venus reading from her 2006 Times of London letter, over the script on screen—“I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made true”—as well as current interviews with subjects framed by receding tennis courts, attractive staircases, and strategically peeling walls. The effect of this contrast in compositions makes the clear the change in public (and publicly expressed) attitudes as well as in the ways athletes and their stories are told and understood. These visual choices, so striking and so precise, open up Venus Vs. to yet another set of contexts, extending beyond the ongoing effort to achieve women’s equality in sports. These choices speak subtly to the ongoing transformation of sports as entertainment, the possibilities of documentary and the art of storytelling, and the many sorts of language and image that help individuals understand one another.