‘Venus and Serena’: Sisters First and Always

“What’s the toughest match you’ve ever been in?” a reporter asks Venus Williams. He’s offscreen, she’s wearing braids, just 11 years old in 1991, doing a TV Interview on a tennis court in Compton. She scrunches her face, then smiles, sort of, at the question, but comes up with an answer: “Probably the one against my sister.” Traffic passes behind her, a siren sounds faintly. It was “horrible,” she goes on, looking at the interviewer with a wise half-smile, one suggesting that she has a good idea of what’s expected of her. “She won 7-6,” Venus declares, “”It was good that she won.”

The moment in Venus and Serena is brief, and one of many looking back on the sisters’ history, their shared experiences and their evolving wisdom, their good ideas of what’s expected of them and how they work to meet and also to challenge those expectations. The film, directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, focuses on the year 2011, when both sisters were making comebacks, Venus from her auto immune deficiency disorder and Serena from a series of illnesses and injuries, including a pulmonary embolism (revealed in some graphic detail near the film’s start). As they make their ways — separately and together — toward the film’s tennis-related climaxes, 2011’s Wimbledon and US Open, Serena and Venus struggle and overcome, disclose and perform, in ways that are at once surprising and also… well, expected.

The documentary tells its story — past and present — with a combination of home movie and TV footage and images shot for the film, in 2011. Interviews with both sisters (Venus observes that unlike her sister, “I didn’t know how to fight, I don’t think that came naturally to me”; Serena asserts, “I hate losing more than I like winning”) are framed by others with individuals who know them (“It was stressful to watch,” says sister Isha of their on-court competitions), as well as celebrities who speak to particular “issues”: Chris Rock on “race,” John McEnroe on “tennis,” Billie Jean King on “women,” Bill Clinton on “heroism,” or something like it. He says of Serena at 17, “She had an aura, that once she mastered her power, nobody in the world would be able to beat her”), offers some terrific footage of olden-days exploits, including practices with their dad Richard showing his legendary rigor and the girls’ legendary toughness.

But tennis is only part of this story, and the film focuses as well on tensions experienced by Venus and Serena, not in broad strokes or explicit storylines, but in details. As scenes don’t so much fit together as break open. As the interview with 11-year-old Venus indicates, the sisters’ achievements, their adversities, and especially their relationship have long been on public display, available for scrutiny and judgment. Whether modeling for Vogue (Anna Wintour makes an appearance here, commending her own decision to feature them in ball gowns in 1998) or pitching Reebok or appearing on Today, the Williamses appear consistently game, if not always eager. They see their work, on the court and off, in contexts, historical and political. While Billie Jean King extols their remarkable accomplishments in tennis, Chris Rock notes too how they represent for him. When he first saw the braids, he says, he was struck by what they announced: “They were black black,” he says. “They weren’t country club black, they were black like I’m used to.”

The film underscores the various and particular trials the sisters’ “black black” image has engendered within the white world of professional tennis. When Venus signed a $12 million contract with Reebok back in 2000, it was then the biggest deal ever signed by a female athlete. As her former coach Rock Macci notes, “There’s a lot of jealousy, a lot of resentment for all these reasons, and there’s an intimidation factor” as the film shows still photos of awards ceremonies at tournaments, white girls (including Hingis and Sharapova) scowling as Venus beams charismatically. Venus adds that when she and Serena first came out, they were feeling “criticized more than our counterparts that aren’t African American.”

Venus and Serena notes here that some of the complaints had to do with the closeness of the girls and their mom, staying, as Mary Carillo comments during a match on TV, ” tight little not away from the rest of the players in the locker room” (how the players’ personal lives fit into the match commentary is a puzzle not unique to the Williamses, but still, underscores how celebrity and sports are narrated for TV viewers). Here the film cuts to low angle shots of the sisters looking strong and happy, their tennis whites set against bright blue sky, as Oracene says in voiceover, “I wanted them to be women of color and proud of who they are, and not let anyone make them ashamed of it, and that was the main purpose of the beads.”

The sequence is typical of Venus and Serena‘s rhythms, letting one idea overlap into another, the Reebok contract leading into observation of tensions on the tour and that leading into Oracene’s recollection. Each element in the sequence has to do with the other, and together they recount how the sisters are consistently dealing with multiple strands of performance and expectations, as corporations saw them one way, competitors in other ways, and consumers in still others. Again, it’s not a constellation of effects specific to the Williamses, but theirs had dimensions that were, at the time, new to this era of tennis and evolving ideals and ideas about how best to package and contain its stars. The ongoing complexity of this constellation is visible as the film presents 2011.

After a series of difficulties during this year, Venus withdraws from the US Open in August, revealing that she’s suffering from Sjorgen’s syndrome. What happens next for Serena is well known. “My stress levels are always way higher during Grand Slams,” Serena tells the camera during one car ride, following a series of brief scenes showing rising tensions between her and her hitting partner, Sascha Bajin. While Richard and his wife mingle with Spike Lee outside the court, TV news reports note the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 and ask Serena how she feels now, six months beyond her hospitalization with a blood clot. Her play is less than stellar. “Who is this woman masquerading as the three time champion?” asks a commentator, as he and his booth partner debate whether she looks “lethargic” or “tight.”

When Serena explodes at an umpire (“You’re unattractive inside”), the press takes her to task repeatedly. Serena, discussing it afterwards for this film, laments that her phrasing was so nerdy, and a brief scene has McEnroe taking her inside a bathroom to let her know, “I mean, you the best thing that we have.” She insists, “I’m tired of having people picking on me, I’m done,” and then, as she walks away from that conversation, the camera trailing after her, “I told him I wasn’t going to apologize.” The sequence intimates the dilemma of being Serena, still facing expectations, still challenged.

The film offers a coda of voices remarking the effects of age, the ways that bodies must slow and expectations must change. “Maybe you’re half a step slower, or a step slower,” says King. “Maybe you notice that you are in a different place emotionally.” And then Serena wins the 2012, climbing up into the stands to embrace her family, and then the sisters win the Doubles Final. The film ends, but Venus and Serena are not done.

RATING 7 / 10