Published Jul 18, 2013Venus and Serena Williams have dominated the world of tennis since exploding onto the scene as young girls, sparking discussion about race, class and gender. Their rise to the top has been a storied tale and has the ingredients present for a compelling and culturally contemplative documentary.
Sadly, in the case of Maiken Baird and Michelle Major's Venus and Serena, the resulting "year in the life of" film is more of a disjointed and fragmented look at their lives, vacillating between ideas and concepts without any greater sense of cohesion.
The directors scored an incredible feat by getting permission to follow the sisters around for an entire year, gaining unprecedented access to the tennis superstars and their extended family. The fact that they chose 2011 as the year to document is especially fascinating, as both Venus and Serena experienced severe injuries and medical dramas, quickly falling from the top of the sport.
Chronicling their upbringing from the streets of Compton, a series of archival news excerpts taped by local affiliates details their rise to fame, as well as their relationship with their "enthusiastic" father, who trained them on the tennis courts in an effort to introduce them to something better than their urban roots.
While the focus is on the sisters and their quick ascension, Baird and Major make no attempt to conceal their underlying interest in Richard Williams and his incredulous devotion to push his daughters into the spotlight. Richard had devised a 78-page written plan for his daughters before they were even born, outlining precisely how his offspring would "make it." Better yet, the unspoken but widely acknowledged question is how Richard would steer his daughters into the role of familial cash cows.
Venus and Serena also attempts to expose Richard's flair for the ladies, introducing viewers to some of the many offspring he has produced over the years, highlighting his lust for the eccentric. The sisters don't like to refer to their father's other children as half-siblings, insisting that everyone is one big happy family, although this contradicts a scene where the sisters meet a young male stranger, who we learn later is their half-brother.
Not to be completely outdone by paternal shadiness, the film touches upon the various moments of racism and classism the girls have had to conquer when they began mingling with the Wimbledon set, giving the documentary a degree of validity beyond that of trashy, throwaway, urban familial posturing. Bitchy comments and "accidental" shoves from peers give context to just how petty losers in a high-stress industry can be.
Supplemented by talking head interviews with Anna Wintour, Bill Clinton and Chris Rock, as well as tennis greats John McEnroe and Billie Jean King, this largely hagiographic documentary paints a picture of two young girls that have persevered through multiple hardships and have continued to dominate.
Baird and Major (two ABC News veterans) didn't even attempt to reinvent the wheel with Venus and Serena, utilizing an incredibly straightforward trajectory: an early struggle; a breakthrough; an obstacle; and a subsequent triumph. Much of the content comes across as guarded, which isn't surprising given the father's overbearing domination over the sisters' lives; he's seen often in the documentary berating photographers he feels have no right to be near his daughters.
It also isn't surprising that the Williams sisters subsequently retracted their support for this authorized documentary. Presumably, it was because of how their father was portrayed, or perhaps they simply weren't enthused with the mediocre product. (Kinosmith)