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Review - 'Venus And Serena' Is An Entertaining & Revealing Look At A Year In The Lives Of The Tennis Superstars

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 10, 2013 at 11:04AM

Magnolia Pictures is opening Venus And Serena (the feature documentary directed and produced by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major) in theaters today, May 10.
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Venus And Serena

Magnolia Pictures is opening Venus And Serena (the feature documentary directed and produced by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major) in theaters today, May 10.

The film gives audiences an unfiltered look into the remarkable lives of the greatest sister act professional tennis has ever seen. In a sport where they were not welcomed, the indomitable Williams sisters faced the opposition with grace and courage, not only breaking new ground for female and African American athletes everywhere, but also dominating the women's game for over a decade. 

The film includes interviews with Bill ClintonBillie Jean KingJohn McEnroeArnon MilchanGay TeleseAnna Wintour among many others.

Long-time Spike Lee editor Sam Pollard (and director of Slavery By Another Name), cut this Williams sisters doc as well.

As previously reported, the sisters (Venus Williams and Serena Williams) were said to be furious over some of the content of the documentary - specifically, revelations of their father's affairs, and his several children from relationships with different women, as well as the fact that he plotted out both sisters' (Venus' and Serena's) futures from the time when they were very young.

I wasn't previously privy to their father's sexual indiscretions; but I think it's long been publicly documented that the sisters have been rigorously and even obsessively training in the sport since they were kids, with their father as their stringent coach for much of the time. And it's hard to argue with the results. I think you'd find similar training histories with many of the world's superstar athletes.

As for the former (the affairs and out-of-wedlock children), while certainly not exactly the kind of resume that would make you a nominee for father of the year, and a part of their history they'd maybe prefer to keep buried, it's done. It's in their family history, but it doesn't at all reflect on them. If anything, it's their father's cross to bear, not theirs. And I didn't suddenly start to question all their accomplishments because of this revelation.

Whether or not that history has had any long-term effects on them wasn't obvious. Based on what I saw in the film, they both seem like very well-grounded, adjusted, intelligent, self-aware, extremely confident young women; even intimidating on some level. They're human beings of course, and since the filmmakers were given the kind of access that allowed them to comprehensively capture the lives of both sisters, the audience is treated to those humbling moments of distress, in which we see the sisters respond as almost any other human being would. Certainly not our most *attractive* moments, except the difference here is that, unlike Venus and Serena, most of us haven't and will likely never be under this kind of intense scrutiny, with cameras recording.

While I wouldn't call it a warts and all expose, as some other reviews have done (I think there are some aspects of one's life that one should be able to keep personal), the film does give us a lot more of the sisters than we've ever seen. It goes beyond the tennis courts, the press conferences, the glitz and the glam of the lives they lead, and takes us into their home (morning, mid-day, and night), introduces us to some of their extended family and friends, the various men in their lives, those very personal quiet moments between the pomp and circumstance of the public moments (and even vice-versa), and much more, all packed into 100 minutes.

At the intro, we're quickly informed that the film crew will follow the sisters during the 2011 tennis season. Throughout the film, intercut with all the current-day footage (prepping for tournaments, working through injuries, the actual matches, the traveling, the ups and downs, hectic schedules, etc), is a nice complement of archival footage, summarizing the sisters' very humble beginnings, continuing through their rise to prominence and beyond, highlighting significant career and life defining/affirming moments, maintaining a nice balance between the personal and the professional. 

It's actually more of an entertaining ride than I expected it to be, and I think that probably has to do with the sisters themselves, and their forceful, dynamic personalities - equally stern and playful; seemingly fearless, fierce, often quite frank (with themselves, others around them, and the press), aware of how super and global their accomplishments and stature are, but still very much down-to-earth and at times, like kids at heart.

They are a joy to watch, and you just can't help but root for them, especially when some aren't - those who root for their failure, whether out of envy, or racial prejudice (I especially loved watching Serena Williams win a finals match earlier in her pro career, despite she and her attending family, being greeted with a booming chorus of boos from the white attendees, who seemed to be booing simply because they were black; and despite the rude reception, she graciously accepted her trophy, and thanked the crowd in her acceptance speech, with a smile on her face. Absolutely wonderful, I thought!).

It's tough to watch them and not be inspired by them. I certainly was. And I think most will as well.

The filmmakers (Maiken Baird and Michelle Major) do a good job of staying out of the way. In fact, at times, except during sit-down interview segments, you actually forget that they're there. 

There're no gimmicks, no unecessary trinkets, nothing that distracts from the main narrative. It's a straightforward affair. I think the filmmakers were fully aware that their subjects were engaging enough that no additional decoration was at all necessary. 

I found myself simultaneously intrigued and envious of the remarkable closeness of the 2 sisters. It's almost impossible to imagine a future in which they are separated (currently they live in the same house, and tease each other about never moving out), with each carving out a life for herself that's almost completely devoid of the other - at least, much more-so than their connected lives are today.

At the end of it all, I felt invigorated; like I'd received a shot in the arm - enough to motivate me to want to be the absolute best at everything I do, personally and professionally.

I'm not a superstar athlete, but I'm very competitive, and can be just as obsessive, and as much of a perfectionist as the sisters revealed themselves to be in the film. So I felt a kind of kinship to them. Whereas some might find their motivations, methods and approach extreme, I recognized a similar drive to be better, and always striving to push even beyond that - a goal that's really never reached because of the sense that there's always more room to grow.

It's a polished piece of documentary filmmaking that's all at once, entertaining, enlightening, and persuasive.

Trailer below.


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