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Review: Ava DuVernay Highlights Tennis Star's Activism in Exciting Doc 'Venus Vs.' (Airs Tonight)

by Nijla Mumin
July 2, 2013 11:03 AM
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Venus Williams
Venus Williams

"I'm not going to say it's a total distraction but it is a little annoying. It's just things flying in the air that you're not supposed to be seeing." (Tennis Player Lindsay Davenport, 1999.)

I remember the first time I saw Venus Williams on television- tall, lean, with a tennis racquet in her hand, and multicolored beads in her braids. I didn’t grow up playing or watching tennis, but there was something about her and those beads that spoke to me. I also wore beads in my hair, and I remember feeling proud of her, and included in her victory.

Venus Vs., directed by award-winning director Ava DuVernay begins with Venus Williams' personal journey as a young girl practicing tennis with her father and sister in Compton, and launches into an engrossing exploration of her fight for equal prize money for women tennis players at Wimbledon, one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world.

Those beads become something larger, a cultural signifier that’s unfamiliar to the droves of white tennis spectators and media (as Davenport's quote suggests), and a marker of inclusion in a world outside of the tennis courts. In one of the most infuriating scenes, Williams is deducted points when some beads fall from her hair in a tournament. Here, her battle is not directed at any tennis opponent, but extends to institutional stigmas that would predate her fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary benefits from a directorial specificity that makes the subject matter fresh and exciting. There’s a great athletic energy and pacing. We are not given access to Venus's love life or Serena’s perspective, we are focused solely on Venus's relationship to the sport of tennis, and how it manifested in her fight for equal pay at Wimbledon. Her fight is contextualized in the larger scope of former women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King, who fought for equal pay at the U.S. Open in 1972, and succeeded.  

DuVernay also gets to special places with her interviewees. We see Venus as we haven’t seen her in other interviews.  She is open, exuding a light and spirit that's complemented by the way she’s captured by the camera- center frame with a round mirror behind her, while supporting interviewees occupy other areas of the frame, helping to mold the narrative that she foregrounds.

In one of the most exhilarating segments, DuVernay provides footage of the 2005 singles competition between Williams and Lindsay Davenport, which became the longest women's singles tournament in Wimbledon history. Heavy sighs and breathing accent every swing and serve between them, and just when we think one might let up, they don’t.  They keep going. When Venus finally takes the victory, the audience feels it and they feel her. The exertion of that match is felt beyond the screen, and is made personal.

In that way, the fight for equal prize money for women, and Venus Williams become synonymous in this film. There is no way you can watch her (and other women players) dominate the sport, hear them breathe and serve that ball, and not see the power and command of the sport that they possess. It’s a power deserving of equality and of recognition, just as Venus is a power deserving of recognition, though she was often denied it. This is a lovely merging, and one that comes full circle by the end of the film.

During the film's Q&A, DuVernay mentioned that this ESPN-funded documentary was one of only two projects she was offered after her historic Sundance win for Middle of Nowhere in 2012. It’s a sad fact, but one that’s overshadowed by the sheer quality of this project, which shows her reach and versatility as a storyteller, and will undoubtedly open more doors for her. I am excited and hopeful for what’s next.

Venus Vs. premieres on ESPN as part of the Nine for IX series, tonight, July 2nd, at 8pm ET.

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  • Christine | July 10, 2013 7:11 PMReply

    Have you seen the other Williams' documentary?
    Magnolia is putting out?
    by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major

  • Chad Johnson | July 19, 2013 8:40 PM

    She must have stole your husband or boyfriend:) lol!
    I heard ESPN wanted to do a film on you called " I hate that's why I am a nothing"

  • belmont1929 | July 5, 2013 11:42 AMReply

    aside from similar remembrances of nasty and snide comments to those mentioned below (like Martina Navratilova decrying the sisters playing the 'race card') this doc brought back memories of comparisons with Tiger that I, unconsciously and consciously made at the time. No comment there. Although Ava really told this story, and really evinced a great deal from Venus, it still seems there were some missing elements. I would have enjoyed seeing more family and close friends (community folks who remember them) aside from the other talking heads, like McEnroe and the two news/sports commentators. The juxtaposition, however, with Billie Jean King, was masterful and well done. The soundtrack was a little disappointing, as was the lack of more political analysis from the perspective of a prominent, Black woman commentator who is engaged with those issues.

    But, and this did it for me --- the last scene , with the young ( 11 or 12??) Venus talking to an off camera interviewer -- she responds to the question, and says how she sees herself winning Wimbledon in the future, as she flashes that shy, innocent toothy smile -- and Ava freezes that moment. Priceless!!!

    Thanks Ava for a great film!!!

  • Huh | July 8, 2013 3:53 PM

    But it was about her fight for fair pay - which family remembrances have nothing to do with. I liked it. Thought it was focused and not trying to be everything. It was about a certain thing and delivered with emotion. Good work Ms. duVernay!

  • BeautyIAM | July 4, 2013 11:01 PMReply

    I really appreciated the documentary. I watched the documentary about both of them as well as Venus vs. I didn't realize how lucky I have been to grow up watching them play. Both of them have had to face so much crap, but they have been able to over come most of the challenges. Its great to see. Out of both sisters, I relate to Venus more. She is very soft spoken, but a roaring bear on the inside. I really like that about her. She was able to push for something that was so needed. I couldn't believe that at one point the pay between men and women in tennis was a couple of hundred bucks. How insulting. I didn't realize the impact equal pay in tennis until I got older. Venus is a great fighter.

  • Jai | July 3, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    I saw the documentary twice last night, Kudos to Ava & Venus!!

  • James Madison | July 2, 2013 11:06 PMReply

    Just saw it. Good documentary.

  • Jeff | July 1, 2013 6:25 PMReply

    I love both Venus and Serena and will support them until the day they decide to retire, but I never understood the argument over the beads. I play tennis all the time and beads falling to the ground in middle of point would definitely be a problem for me. As a Williams fan, I find myself constantly on guard and defending them against nonsense, but I've always been on the other side when it came to the beads. They were impractical for the game in my opinion. It's funny, Lindsay Davenport was one of the nicest and fairest players on the tour and became one of their biggest proponents after they played Davis Cup together in 99. I think the media needed there to be some type of bad blood between them but Lindsay and the sisters always seemed fine with each other.

  • Orville | July 8, 2013 8:41 PM

    Actually Jeff when the Williams Sisters and Lindsay were young in the late 1990s Lindsay wasn't so nice to Venus and Serena. I remember the 1999 US OPEN when Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport both said they made a pack to make sure there would be no Williams Sisters reaching the final. Lindsay was always jealous of Venus since she had a 0-3 record against Venus in the grand slam finals and an 0-4 record against Venus at Wimbledon. Lindsay has definitely become more nicer since she's retired but when she was playing she was just as nasty as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin against the sisters.

  • ebpersons | June 25, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    Venus's clothes are fine, I was more focused on the person I see. Most of the time I watched her matches with the sound off; the commentary was annoying and distracting, especially by the American white women commentators. They were so negative and seemed to be rooting against her and I never understood that and still don't. Venus was gracious and guarded and endured all their pettiness; there were times when she showed her annoyance and I was glad!

  • Donella | June 26, 2013 12:27 PM

    I had to stop watching Venus and Serena play because the commentators would be so damn nasty, the crowd too. I know the tennis world and its sure enough a head game. Those girls are damn tough to have made it to the top of the game.

  • ebpersons | June 25, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    Venus makes my heart sing! Her personal style (not clothes); her way of being, the sheer power of her personality and her intensity in her life and her sport is breath-taking. A true legend, whatever happens next for her.

  • Orville | June 25, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    This is nice that Venus is getting some spotlight of her own, since Serena has eclipsed her on the tennis court. But Venus came before Serena and she's still a great tennis champion winning seven grand slam singles titles. Venus also reached the number one ranking in the world.

  • Ava | June 25, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    I absolutely remember that match where Venus got a point penalty for the beads coming off. With that memory, it was very satisfying to see her beat Lindsey Davenport for those Wimbledon titles--especially in '05.

    I'm a big tennis fan (I'm familiar with the arduous quest for equal prize money) and a huge Venus fan, so I will be watching this film when it becomes available.

  • Donella | June 25, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    Thank you for the update on this project by two women I admire.

  • Val | June 24, 2013 9:52 PMReply

    This should be very interesting. I look forward to seeing it.

  • Donna Serra | June 24, 2013 5:14 PMReply

    Well written review that makes me want to see this and not a fan of tennis whatsoever.

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