Some documentaries dig deep and rip the lid off their subject matter, revealing secrets and surprises that the audience never knew. Others tread in more familiar territory, but if they’re comprehensive and detailed enough, they can still be compelling for people interested in the material.
“Venus and Serena,” a look at the astoundingly talented tennis-playing Williams sisters, fits firmly into the latter category. Fans of these groundbreaking athletes probably won’t learn much they don’t already know, but the film covers enough ground to feel like the movie equivalent of one of those lengthy, in-depth articles you used to get in the magazine of your Sunday newspaper.
Filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major (documentary producers making their directorial debuts) are less interested in digging deep than they are in celebrating the sisters’ achievements and contextualizing them as strong black women making an impact in professional athletics and in the culture at large. But that’s still a fascinating story, and they tell it well.
There’s a three-pronged approach here — the directors got to spend 2011 up close and personal with the Williamses, and that footage anchors the movie. (It also demonstrates right off the bat that camera and subject stayed close together, as the year began with Serena getting hospitalized for a blood clot; the filmmakers are right there for all the I.V.s and drainage.)
Also mixed in to the film is vintage (1990s) footage of Venus and Serena as young tennis prodigies spending day after day being coached by their father Richard. The girls seem to have inherited his drive — or at least they accepted and internalized it early — as they cheerfully hit volley after volley after volley. Their dogged determination as children plays a key role in the arc of their story, which sees two young girls raised in Compton rise to become world champions in a sport dominated by rich white people.
We also get interviews with big names who evaluate the Williams sisters in various ways: Chris Rock on race, Anna Wintour on their presence in the fashion world, Bill Clinton on their embodiment of the American dream and Billie Jean King and John McEnroe on their impact on tennis. The way that the sport treats Serena’s occasional on-court outbursts versus the way it handled McEnroe’s legendary tirades makes a handy snapshot of gender and racial politics.
What “Venus and Serena” never really provides is a window into how their drive (and the fact that they basically forfeited their childhoods in pursuit of the sport) has affected them. We learn that the sisters are dedicated Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one of them observes, “I think perfectionist people are nuts. I think obsessive people are A-OK,” but that’s about it.
The film occasionally flirts with controversy (childhood tennis coach Rick Macci pops up to claim some credit for molding them, despite Richard’s insistence on taking all the credit) and tragedy (the 2003 murder of their half-sister Yetunde Price) but never seems particularly interested in dwelling on them.
Still, one of the things that non-fiction movies can provide is a narrative you’d never buy in a made-up story. Venus was clearly groomed to be the champion, but her tag-along little sister Serena winds up being as good, if not occasionally better?
Two girls from the ghetto not only become world-class tennis pros but also wind up designing their own fashion line? If you read it in an airport novel, you’d never believe it, but here they are.