I’m a huge fan of tennis and a huge fan of the Williams sisters. So when I discovered that TIFF had programmed a feature length documentary about them in the 2012 line-up I was eager to see it.
The documentary is co-directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major and produced by Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney and edited by Sam Pollard, frequent Spike Lee collaborator. Having wooed the sisters for over four years, the filmmakers were given unprecedented access to their lives, recording some 450 hours of footage over the course of 20 months.
It features interviews with family, friends and business associates as well as commentary by people as varied as Anna Wintour, John McEnroe and Bill Clinton speaking to their wider significance as African American trailblazers. Chris Rock encapsulates the sentiment many of us felt on seeing the sisters first emerge on the scene with their trademark cornrows and beads, “I remember the braids; they were like black-black, not country-club black.”
It’s impossible to talk about this work without talking about the controversy surrounding the film itself which threatened to eclipse its screening in Toronto. As already reported on this blog, the Williams sisters opted not to travel to the film’s premiere and subsequently issued a statement withdrawing their support from the project, primarily due to its portrayal of their father Richard Williams.
It is revealed that Richard is also father to a string of illegitimate children, of whom Venus and Serena are aware but struggle to list. At one point a young boy turns up with Richard to one of their practices and refers to him as “Dad”, much to their consternation. The sisters at times express frustration with their father’s coaching methods and antics and endorse their parents’ decision to divorce. In one especially memorable segment Oracene Price, when asked what advice she would give to Richard’s new wife, says, drily, “Run”.
There is also a claim from Rick Macci, an early coach, that he is equally responsible for the girl’s development but that Richard Williams ditched him on the eve of their first lucrative endorsement deal, despite promises that they would prosper together. While the Williams clan acknowledge his contribution, it’s a betrayal they flatly deny.
Other than the these revelations, for anyone familiar with the William’s sisters rise, the film doesn’t break much new ground. With a lively edit underpinned by a Wyclef Jean soundtrack, the film summarizes the sisters’ journey to the top of the professional game using archival footage and clippings. We see them as youngsters on the Compton courts, Richard lugging a shopping trolley full of used balls behind him. We’re given an account of his highly unorthodox training methods and the impetus behind his grand scheme to breed a tennis champion – namely to solve his family’s financial woes. In the film he also points to the racism he endured as a black man in the Jim Crow era South as a motivating factor.
A rare spotlight is shone on Oracene Price and her contribution to her daughters’ development. She has clearly been as influential as Richard, though not nearly as vocal. She has been there all along, not just as a supportive maternal force but also as a coach, whose insights and analysis the sisters continue to value.
The film touches on the well-reported highs and lows of the sisters’ lives and careers – breakthrough performances, record-breaking achievements and the controversies that have often dogged them, namely the Indian Wells boycott; Serena’s outburst at the US open and her perceived lack of contrition; and their early uninspired play against each other which led to accusations of match fixing. Also touched on is the murder of their sister Yetunde Price in 2003. This is understandably a source of great pain to the family and both sisters struggle to hold back the tears as they recount the story of her shooting.
During the period covered in the film both sisters were grappling with serious health issues. Venus was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Sjögren's syndrome and the film opens with Serena being wheeled into surgery to remove blood clots in her lungs. As a result, the filmmakers capture more down time than perhaps they had anticipated but it does give us a rare glimpse into their lives off the tournament circuit.
Their famously close relationship is on display with friends describing a connection that makes it hard to imagine them marrying and leading separate lives. They are relaxed and funny when in each other’s company and clearly enjoy a close relationship as well with their team of assistants and helpers. They share a passion for karaoke that developed during Serena’s period of recovery from illness and enjoy varied interests off the court.
It is Serena’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for success that fires up the screen. In one instance we see her berate her long-suffering hitting partner Sasha for not challenging her hard enough in practice. This is a woman who, as she makes clear, hates losing even more than she loves winning.
Venus Williams on the other hand comes across as obsessively focused, yes, but also very demure by comparison. She embodies the protective older sister and seems willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure her sister’s continued success. Though she works hard and clearly desires more trophies one can’t help but feel that this is a pivotal moment in their careers documenting Serena’s return to dominance and Venus’ imminent march into retirement, at least from singles play.
There is no doubting their passion for the game, despite having secured almost every major achievement possible. Like all tennis players however, the sisters grapple with the ravages of a game from which most people are forced to retire by their late 20’s. To see the footage of them in the gym, on the practice court and in physical therapy, often wincing in pain, is to see two people trying to push their bodies beyond the limits of what might be physically possible. For two women who have played with such ferocity for so long, it’s sobering to observe that they are human after all.