Ava DuVernay’s skilled documentary “Venus Vs.,” which debuts on ESPN July 2, charts Venus Williams’ two-year battle from 2005 to 2007 for equal prize money among genders at Wimbledon. In the film, sports journalist Howard Bryant explains that it takes a certain collision of factors for someone to be the right and most effective person to champion a cause. In 1973, it was Billie Jean King. In this millennium it’s Williams, a superstar in the world of tennis who also understands acutely what it is to be an outsider in that sport -- racially, economically and in terms of gender.
Though King eventually pressured the US Open to agree to equal compensation, at the time it was the only one of the four tournaments to change, with the European and Australian Opens holding their macho ground for subsequent decades. King is one of the pro tennis player interviewees in the documentary, along with Maria Sharapova and John McEnroe.
Williams, who recently announced her withdrawal from this year's Wimbledon due to back injuries, is the centerpiece of the film's talking heads, exuding a quiet gentleness at odds with her ferocious swing and visceral war cry on the tennis courts. In a confident yet not cocky way she explains how she lobbied British Parliament, and wrote a frank op-ed piece for the London Times, in which she overhead-smashed Wimbledon for being “on the wrong side of history.” (One of the delights of the film is the Parliament footage of then member Janet Anderson raising the issue -- amid the usual vocal clamor that comes with hot-button issues -- and Tony Blair taking a clear side: “I welcome what she said, and endorse it fully.”)
In a well-choreographed sequence, DuVernay crosscuts between Williams and former Women’s Tennis Association chairman Larry Scott, explaining how in 2005 Williams pointedly showed up for a Grand Slam Committee meeting the night before the Wimbledon final. Needless to say, she was juggling priorities. Yet she felt strongly about the issue, and ad-libbed an inspirational speech that stunned the entire room.
Unlike Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s 2012 documentary “Venus and Serena” -- which centers more heavily on the sisters’ professional careers but also, to the scattered detriment of the film, on their personal lives -- DuVernay’s documentary is a succinct, focused ode to Williams’ cause for gender equality. This isn’t to say we don’t get to see tennis in “Venus Vs.” Cleverly, DuVernay incorporates footage from some of Williams’ most stunning matches as a way of not only communicating visually the blood, sweat and tears going into the battle for women’s respect on the courts, but also as a demonstration of how ludicrous the hoary claim is that women’s matches aren’t as “entertaining” as men’s.
Anyone in doubt of the sheer magnetic force of female athleticism at its peak needs to watch Williams and arch-rival Lindsay Davenport’s epic 2005 showdown at Wimbledon, which Williams would ultimately win. DuVernay includes the final portion from this game, which gave me both goosebumps and a lump in the throat. Yet seeing such a match in the context of Wimbledon then refusing Williams the same prize money as Roger Federer is effective in a completely different way.
DuVernay, who was recently named one of Indiewire's Influencers and whose previous feature "Middle of Nowhere" garnered acclaim and awards in 2012, frames her interviewees unusually. She makes the viewer notice the face of the person talking but also the environment surrounding -- even looming over -- them. The decision to put Billie Jean King in the bottom-right corner of the frame at first seems odd, but the result is that we understand her as one part of a much bigger picture.
In terms of sound, the film opens with various disparaging soundbites from sexist tennis players and sports commentators alike about the inferiority of women’s tennis; eventually a catchy, bass-inflected score takes over, adding a propulsive dynamism, as if moving away from backward notions about gender and toward something new. Such filmmaking momentum is warranted, as we’re brought to the rewarding conclusion that in 2007 Williams’ perseverance paid off -- literally, for her, as she not only won the case for equal prize money but then received the same amount as men’s champion Federer when she won Wimbledon that year.
“Venus Vs.” is the kick-off documentary in ESPN’s Nine for IX series, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and it’s a rousing and appropriate testament to the strength of women athletes -- and women filmmakers, for that matter.
"Venus Vs." premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and debuts on ESPN July 2.