Polarizing figures both on and off the tennis court, dominating athlete sisters Venus and Serena Williams have certainly left an impact on a previously white bread and male dominated sport, and while their methods sometimes leave a lot to be desired, it’s generally established that the strides they’ve made are for the betterment of their sport. The year-in-the-life documentary Venus and Serena from filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major does a fine job of balancing the laudatory moments with the deeply flawed and sometimes overly confrontational behaviour of the Williams family as a whole.
Following the sporting superstars throughout a tumultuous 2011 for the both of them, the film starts with the sisters at the most vulnerable point in their seemingly unstoppable career. In January and right at the film starts, Serena is out of action with blood clots in her lungs requiring surgery. Venus finds herself already in a slump at the start of the year before being forced to forfeit at the Australian open thanks to pain in her leg that would require heavy rehab. But the journey back to the court for them only amounts to part of the story.
The real meat of the story comes from getting to know the background of these two girls from Compton, California with endless drive, determination, a strong sense of identity, hair trigger tempers, and one of the best stage managing fathers in any industry. Watching Richard Williams carefully craft and construct both the image and game of his two daughters is alternating fascinating and icky, and at times Venus and Serena seem baffled by his ways, as well. This is a man who had a 78 page personally written plan for Venus before she was even born. There isn’t a single element of their image he hasn’t personally crafted, and that extends to the more negative and arrogant lapses both sisters openly admit to having. It’s a credit that Baird and Major are able to get to the real heart of the issue.
There are some distractions. A strangely perverse soundtrack of Wyclef Jean tracks devoted to the sisters gives the wrong impression, and talks with luminaries outside the world of tennis like Chris Rock, Bill Clinton, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and Puma owner/Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan are more quaint than insightful. Still there are a lot of answers as to what makes these women tick and how they are products of their own environment. Whether its looking at Serena’s growing addiction to karaoke, their dating habits, their lives as Jehovah’s Witnesses, how they cope with sometime unquestionably racist responses, or their inability to apologize, the film paints an adequate portrait of such polarizing personalities while allowing their candour to show wonderfully.