Sometimes, documentary filmmakers get really lucky. When directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major signed on to follow tennis champion sisters Venus and Serena Williams for an entire year (2011), they couldn’t have known what a traumatic and eventful 12 months awaited.
Culled from 450 hours of footage, Venus and Serena opens with Serena, 31, being hospitalized with a potentially fatal blood clot in her lung. Venus, 32, is starting to suffer from old injuries that refuse to heal and an auto-immune system disorder that gives her spells of great fatigue and joint pain.
Most athletes who had accomplished what they had at this point — Serena has 15 singles Grand Slam titles, Venus has seven — might decide to retire and enjoy the fame and reward they had reaped. Product endorsements, along with their tournament winnings, turned them into millionaires. They became fashion icons after Vogue editor Anna Wintour showcased them in the magazine. And they remain idols for girls of all races but especially African-Americans, who dream of becoming professionals in a sport that has historically been dominated by Caucasians.
But by July 2011, the sisters had returned to the court, still under the guidance of their father Richard, who had started to train them from childhood in their crime-ridden neighborhood of Compton, begging country clubs to let him have their used tennis balls for the girls to use.
The bond between the sisters, who share a home in Palm Beach, is so strong that Gay Talese speculates they are probably destined to marry brothers; because they’ve lived in the shadow of each other’s lives for so long, separating seems inconceivable.
Alternating between vintage videos of the sisters as 14-year-olds and more recent footage, Venus and Serena expresses awe and admiration at the accomplishments of these two remarkable women. The movie delves into their competitive nature, which is loving and collegial even on the court, and explores how racism sometimes interfered with their success, but they simply plowed ahead.
What’s missing from Venus and Serena is a sense of intimacy. Their father, a domineering and controlling figure, pushed the girls hard and deserves great credit for their success. But the movie is halfway over before we learn that he is divorced from their mother Oracene Price, who also helped train the sisters and has an entire family neither Venus nor Serena are close to. After the filmmakers turned in their first cut, the sisters demanded some edits and changes in the way Richard came off. The directors complied and made some trims, which helps explain why the film works better as a thrilling but superficial celebration of two incredible athletes instead of a personal portrait of two world-famous women who continue to make sports history.
Directors: Maiken Baird, Michelle Major.
Screenwriters: Cliff Charles, Stephanie Johnes, Rashidi Harper.
Producers: Michelle Major, Maiken Baird.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language. Plays Thursday through May 19 In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores.