Venus Vs.shows an unexpected side of Venus Williams. The film is all about the fight for equal pay for women in tennis. Billie Jean King led the charge in her day and the US Open started to pay the women and the men the same. But not Wimbledon. It took Venus Williams to carry on Billie Jean's legacy and help women reach the finish line for pay equity. The film is about how a young black girl, an unexpected interloper in this sport, became an leader on this very important issue. Ava DuVernay is able to elevate the story and make it not just about how this sports star did right by her gender. She's able to give it a whole important layer of subtext surrounding Venus' race and how that interplayed in her life as a tennis star and also as a leader.
The film premiere July 2 on ESPN at the premiere film in the Nine for IX series.
Ava answered some questions about the film:
Women and Hollywood: We always see the Williams sisters together in larger contexts outside the court. So how did this story come about? Did you get a call
from Robin Roberts?
Ava DuVernay: I got a call from ESPN after I won Sundance asking I wanted to make a film with them and if I had any ideas. I sent them a one-paragraph email outlining this little known time in the career of Venus Williams, a time when she fought for the women of her sport despite having once been an outsider. ESPN greenlit the project within a couple of weeks and we were off.
WaH: Venus is a radical activist. Does she know what a righteous activist she is?
AD: I don't know if radical activists consider themselves as such. She definitely knows her own mind and knows her influence. She definitely - as I try to show in the doc - has always fought for herself and what was right. Whether being discriminated against on and off the court in the early days or championing a larger cause like her work with UNESCO. She's aware of her personal power - and uses it for good.
WaH: I loved the intergenerational love between Billie Jean King and Venus. It seems that Billie Jean was very deliberate in her mentorship of Venus. Can you comment on that?
AD: It's a beautiful relationship from what I can tell. Billie and Venus actually grew up in neighborhoods that are just miles apart. Long Beach and Compton. Billie calls herself and Venus - "public park kids." That was the early connection it seems. And then Venus's talent stood out to Billie. Her thoughtfulness. Her intelligence. It goes both ways. They are really drawn to each other's fire and have big hearts. They both want to see the right thing done and are willing to put themselves out there to make it happen.
WaH: The film was not just about a woman fighting for equal rights it was about a black woman fighting that fight. Talk about why that story was important to you and how you were able to tell this story in a unique way.
AD: Black athletes have an incredible legacy of activism. In order to even play, they had to stand up for themselves historically. So for Venus to go from breaking down the status quo in her sport on the court, to then putting this larger social cause of women's equality on her back for all women in her sport is pretty extraordinary. You think of Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson and so many others. I believe she is in that conversation. One could say, well, she's making millions of dollars. And that's my point exactly. She put the millions of dollars, the brand, the perfect spokesperson reputation at risk to equalize prizes that were nominal in difference. Because it wasn't about the dollars, it was about the injustice that so many had ignored within that sport for so long since Billie was active. It was brave, and should be known. It happened six years ago and received so little coverage. Even hardcore Venus fans have told me they never heard about this whole thing. I'm happy we got to share the story.
WaH: You've made great strides in the last year professionally. Can you talk about how you have handled the success and used it to propel you to the next level?
AD: I'm glad you think I've made great strides! I feel like I'm on the same level, but the projects are just being seen a bit more widely than my earlier stuff. Same level budget-wise, etc. But I'm consistently working and I'm damn happy. Very fulfilled, and that's a blessing. I'm a director so I should be directing, right? That's how I see it. Whether it's a narrative or a doc. A feature or a branded short, like the one I did for Prada. Or, this fall I'm directing some episodic TV. All of it is storytelling, and all of it is my job as a storyteller. And I love it. That, and AFFRM. I'm happy that the things we're making and distributing are being well-received.
WaH: What can Venus' story teach us?
AD: To be bad-ass all the time! No, seriously -- to stand up for ourselves. You'll see she's been fighting for herself since she was a girl. And it's all paid off. Her career is an extraordinary example of the power we all have if we believe in ourselves. That sounds super cliche, but it's true. Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe you can do that thing you dream of? Do you believe you DESERVE that thing you dream of? Those are big questions. She did believe and does believe - and we see where it's gotten her. Good lesson.
WaH: What advice can you impart to other women directors?
AD: To be bad-ass all the time! Seriously.
Venus Vs. premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last week. It will air on ESPN on July 2.