Sunday, June 30, 2013

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay Tells Venus Williams' Story in New ESPN Documentary 'Venus vs.'


By Darlene Donloe

Venus Williams has already proven she’s a force to be reckoned with on the tennis court.  

When VenusWilliams emerged on the scene and turned pro in 1994, she literally changed the face and the game of tennis!

In the documentary, Venus vs., Williams proves she’s also a force to be reckoned with in life.   Not only is she a savvy businesswoman, she is also a women’s advocate who stepped up and fought for equality in the professional tennis world. For her efforts, Williams took the brunt of a backlash that initially cost her some popularity within her sport.

Venus Vs. is a part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series on female athletes and will be premiere on the channel on July 2nd.


Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who in 2012 became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival - for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere, has directed a solid documentary on Williams that pulls back the curtain on a part of the tennis world that is not widely known. For instance: up until recently men and women players received a disproportionate amount of prize money for winning various tournaments. Apparently women only received a fraction of a male tennis player’s winnings. Williams, along with her friend, mentor and multiple Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King, took on the challenge of getting women equal pay in the male dominated world of tennis.  King had started the fight decades earlier, but didn’t get much support. In fact, she ran into a brick wall.

The story goes something like this: It all began 45 years in 1968 ago when Billie Jean King won Wimbledon and earned £750 in prize money while the men’s singles champion, Rod Laver won £2,000.  King began the fight for equal pay and eventually succeeded in persuading the U.S. Open to offer the same prize money to men and women.  But the other three Grand Slam tournaments—the French Open, the Australian Open, and the crown jewel of Wimbledon were slow to change and continued to pay women less.  Over the years women’s prize money rose, but it still wasn’t equal to that of the male stars.  In the interviews for the documentary King explains that it would require another strong-willed, highly visible woman to take the fight to the next level. 


Enter Compton native Venus Williams.

DuVernay, who kept the narrative sharp and focused, starts from the beginning, highlighting Williams’ meteoric rise in the tennis world, which started at the age of 14. 

In 2000, Williams won Wimbledon and received about 80% of what her male counterpart, Pete Sampras, would receive.

In what is an obvious futile attempt at rationalizing, some of the male players and officials actually tried to justify why men were paid higher prize money. Some pointed out that women only played three sets and men played five. Female players welcomed the opportunity to play five sets, but were denied.

Not surprisingly, during his interview bad boy tennis player John McEnroe admitted to sharing in sexist prejudices when he was a star player, but has since changed his view considering he’s the father of four daughters.

Eventually the French Open and the Australian Open equaled the pay of all players, leaving Wimbledon as the lone holdout.

Digging in her heels, Williams, using her power and influence, eventually made a personal appearance before the Wimbledon committee, wrote a persuasive article for the London Times, and even helped to persuade Parliament and Prime Minister Tony Blair to take up the issue.  Finally, in 2007 when she won her fourth Wimbledon championship, she finally got the same pay as her male counterpart, Roger Federer.

This is a 50-minute, awe-inspiring film. It’s a tribute to how perseverance and determination trumps tradition.

When asked why she decided to make her fourth documentary on a sports figure, DuVernay said, “ESPN asked me if there was anything I wanted to make. I wasn’t into sports, but I wanted to do this. I asked a lot of guy friends about possible subjects. One suggested Venus. I sent it to ESPN. They said yes quickly.”

She also admitted there was a bit of a homegirl connection. 

“I’ve always been taken by Venus,” said DuVernay. “She’s from Compton. I’m from Compton. I’ve always had an affinity and affection for her.  I’m just trying to tell a story the best I can."

DuVernay (I Will Follow, This Is The Life) should win a grand slam for this doc. With minimalist filmmaking that uses mostly headshots and relies on archival footage, she has presented a winning story.  Even though the audience knows the outcome of many of the games shown in tournament footage, it’s still edge of your seat excitement. You find yourself rooting for Williams even though you know she has already won.


A former World No. 1 player, Williams is currently ranked 35 in singles. However, she has been ranked No. 1 in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association on three separate occasions. She became the first African American woman to achieve that honor in 2002. Her seven Grand Slam singles titles tie her for twelfth on the all time list. Her 22 overall Grand Slam titles consist of seven in singles, 13 in women’s doubles and two in mixed doubles. Her five Wimbledon singles titles tie her with two other women for eighth place on the all-time list. She is one of only four women in the open era to have won five or more Wimbledon singles titles. 

Tennis greats John McEnroe and Maria Sharapova were great additions to the documentary. 

"I got everyone I wanted for the documentary," says DuVernay. "It took some time, but I got Maria Sharapova. We caught her in Malibu.  McEnroe was grouchy. But, by the second question, he was comfortable."

Venus vs., which was part of the recent Los Angeles Film Festival is the second documentary this year to feature Venus Williams. The first, Venus and Serena, came out last spring and centered on her relationship with her sister and fellow competitor, Serena Williams

This time Venus takes the spotlight – alone. It’s a fascinating look at a fascinating woman and elite athlete.

Kudos to everyone involved. Venus vs. is a winner!

Venus vs. is directed and written by Ava DuVernay, produced by Howard Barish and DuVernay. Arthur Jafa, Kate Reid and Hans Charles are directors of photography and Spencer Averick is the editor.

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Venus vs. gets an E (excellent).

**photos courtesy of ESPN

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