Demystifying Venus and Serena

They've got it: Venus (left) and Serena.
Magnolia Pictures

A few weeks ago, the ginned-up controversy over Serena Williams's performance of the Crip Walk after defeating Maria Sharapova at the London 2012 Olympic Games was given another life cycle via a GIF on Tumblr. This time that site's "niggerati" assailed the racist bent of the uproar, which was centered on the idea that Williams was celebrating gang culture.

"If she was going to be representing the Crips, she'd be throwing up signs and spelling out her crew with her feet," one poster said before satirizing the Fox News complaints about Williams: "Twenty-year-old dances that have made it into the mainstream are still totally gang related. Just like how hoodies are dangerous and dap is terrorist fist jabs."

Neither Serena's post-Olympic victory dance nor the ensuing furor is included in the documentary Venus and Serena, co-directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major. The film centers on the sisters' 2011 comebacks, so its timeline ends before the C-Walk imbroglio. But the outcry (and its analysis by Tumblr's brightest) distills one of the film's urgent missions: an examination of the toxic reactions that have dogged the siblings since their first tennis-world triumphs.

Baird and Major's film combines rare news footage and home movies with much arresting new material: interviews with the sisters, their family, and high-profile fans; clips from their 2011 matches; and footage of them training, recovering from illnesses, and goofily singing karaoke (a Venus obsession). Conventional in form, it's also highly enjoyable.

The Williams clan is captivating, and the best celebrity testimonials are blunt—Chris Rock says the first time he saw the siblings he recognized that "they weren't country-club black. They were black like I was used to"—or dazzlingly self-serving, as with Bill Clinton's comment: "When I see a great athlete do something self-destructive, I always think we should cut them some slack." (That probably resembles an argument he's made in his own life.)

The film works best as a primer, as it would take a miniseries to do justice to all that the sisters have accomplished in the face of obvious obstacles and naked double standards. Longtime fans will likely have episodes they feel should have been included, and the filmmakers could have gone harder in many instances. Serena's grunting on the court has been another subject of dubious controversy, and it's hard not to wish the filmmakers would have juxtaposed the media's kid-glove treatment of grunters like Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and Caroline Wozniacki with the hostility afforded Serena. They could have included something on other controversial "tennis dads" to illustrate why the demonization of Richard Williams is especially odious. And you'll have to wait on Ava DuVernay's forthcoming ESPN documentary Venus VS to get the full extent of Venus's political activism, both in the tennis world and beyond.

What Venus and Serena does extraordinarily well is capture the work ethic and undersung smarts of the sisters while taking viewers deep into their enviably close relationship. But the film isn't hagiography. Serena, especially, is shown in her many moods, some of them downright bitchy. But she and Venus are never denied their complexity or humanity, and Serena offers a comment that likely sums up her psychology better than volumes of ink ever could: "I hate losing more than I like winning."

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