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.