Ava DuVernay is a writer, a director, a documentarian, a marketer and the leader of a film collective.
She has not been, however, a sports fan.
So it may come as a surprise to many – DuVernay included — that the UCLA graduate directed “Venus Vs.,” the first film in ESPN’s upcoming "Nine for IX" series, an extension of the company's landmark "30 for 30" documentary project.
"Nine for IX," which begins Tuesday night with “Venus Vs.,” celebrates the 40th anniversary of Title IX, an amendment to a 1965 law that sought to end gender discrimination in school sports. All nine of the films — as well as the one short – are focused on women in sports — athletes, coaches, journalists and sex symbols.
The timing of the premiere of “Venus Vs.,” focused largely on Williams’ role in the fight for female tennis players to earn equal pay at Wimbledon — is lost on no one. The second week of Wimbledon just began.
TheWrap spoke with Duvernay (above) about her involvement in "Nine for IX" and why Williams has long captivated her in spite of her disinterest in sports.
So how did you get involved with this? Did ESPN make a list of subjects and seek out directors? Were directors invited to pitch ideas to the network?
I was walking out of my third screening of “Middle of Nowhere” at Sundance and a man named Dan Silver, an executive at ESPN, came up to me. He said ‘I love the film.’ I’m thinking, ESPN?! OK, thank you very much. I pat him on the shoulder and kept walking.
He had slipped my producer a card, but I didn’t understand what I have to do with ESPN. He explained the "30 for 30" series and said he was looking for directors with vision to tell the story. Two weeks later, I sent an email about a little known story about Venus Williams.
Literally within that month we were greenlit and making it.
Did you watch the first round of "30 for 30" documentaries?
I had seen a couple of them, and I knew what it was since a couple friends had made some. I thought it was just for the 30th anniversary [of ESPN]. I hadn’t realized it continued until I started talking to male friends and men in my family. I’d say "30 for 30" and jaws dropped. People worship this thing. I earned so much credit with the brothers.
What about this particular subject appealed to you?
I didn’t want to fabricate an interest in sports I didn’t naturally have. I can’t say I’m a big sports person, but I’m from Compton. I always had an affinity and affection from afar for Venus Wiliams. She was a few years younger than me, and I remember being in college and hearing about a girl from my hometown doing something that hadn’t been done.
When I was thinking about sports and a possible film, I started to dig into her and found this story that tennis fans weren’t aware of — an undercover campaign we were able to share.
As you learned more about Venus, why did the issue of equal pay stand out the most?
I thought it was all extraordinary — the idea of a young girl who made her professional debut in 1994 at 14 years old as a complete outsider. She was much maligned during that time — criticized for her style of play, for the beads in her hair, for grunting, for where she came from. Ultimately she becomes a champion for all women at the highest court in the land.
What did you learn about the state of gender equality in tennis and sports?
The focus of the documentary was gender equality in this particular instance, but also the gender politics and the impact of any fight for quality in any corner of society. It has ripple effects in illuminating other corners.
I talked to top official at the U.N. in charge of women and gender roles for UNCESCO. She talked passionately about fact that a gain anywhere to equalize and make uneven places even is important and necessary.
It’s important that this fight for equality not be minimized. It held a mirror up to society. Up to ’07 — six years ago — men and women were paid unequally for the same quality of entertainment, the same sold-out crowds and the same endorsement deals.
We got to what’s underneath it — sexism and patriarchy.
What do you say to those who argue that female athletes don’t deserve equal pay because they generate a fraction of the revenue?
It’s not true. We’re speaking specifically about Wimbledon, and women sell out their matches like men do. The revenue reflects who sets the prices — Wimbledon does. How do you generate equal revenue if Wimbledon sets the prices at a lesser value? It gets into the patriarchal issue that becomes a vicious cycle.
You also hear women play best-of-five sets instead of three. Whose decision was that? The paramaters were set in place by Wimbledon. Hopefully the documentary gets underneath the really tired excuses that people have regurgitated without understanding what they are saying.
What impact have Venus and her sister Serena Williams had on women, especially younger African-American women, in terms of how they view sports and specifically tennis?
I can't speak for Serena at all. I focused on Venus and her cause and purposely didn’t request to speak with Serena. As a black woman, it's an incredible story. She was the first one through the door, the first one I remember hearing about, the first one to go pro, the first one to have the media glare and have to justify who she was to be taken seriously.
Any time you see a woman stretch the limits of what she can be, to learn the strife off the court, it makes me admire her.
What was that strife?
She has a quiet strength. Harnessing her power at the time … She was at height of her popularity, winning so consistently. To martial all of that into a cause that meant something for her — that’s not easy to do. With the risk to your brand and endorsements, she just naturally jumped into that.
Given that she is more reserved than her sister, was it at all difficult to get her to cooperate and talk about it?
Once I got in touch and explained my vision she was lovely, open and hands-off — the three words any documentarian wants to hear. I went to Wimbledon 2012 with her. I was on tour in Washington with her. The main interview was done at her estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
Is that the first time you’ve traveled with an athlete like that?
Oh yeah. I was the girl in school sitting on the sidelines cheering everyone on. Don’t put a ball in my hands; it’s not gonna go anywhere. I learned a lot about the game working on the documentary over the past year. Being from Compton, tennis is not at the top of my mind if I had my choice. I was a Venus fan more than a tennis fan. I’ve now become a tennis fan.