Venus and Serena: The Movie

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New York — It’s always good to see tennis reaching over its own well-constructed walls and out of its insular society to connect with the outside world, which is why John McEnroe and Billie Jean King were standing outside the Independent Film Center theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village last, night arm-in-arm with a pair of movie producers, while paparazzi lit up the gritty Gotham evening with flashbulbs and puzzled passers-by muttered, “What’s this all about?” or “Who are those people?”

That some of them needed to ask underscores my point, as did the reason so many of us gathered at the theater to watch a screening of Venus and Serena (Magnolia Pictures), the new film by aforementioned producers/directors Maikin Baird and Michelle Major. Nobody has taken tennis outside the walls and among new people more thoroughly than the sisters who are the subject of this documentary (it’s widely available on Demand, and in theaters starting May 10; you can see the trailer here:

The evening began with a cocktail party hosted by Graydon Carter (Vanity Fair) and Anna Wintour (Vogue) at Carter’s Beatrice Inn, a popular spot with Manhattan swells and celebrities. It was loaded with sharp-dressed men and skinny blonde socialites in black velvet ankle boots. Not really my scene, but then along came John McEnroe and his wife, singer Patty Smyth. I’d not been introduced to Patty before, but within a minute I felt like I’d known her half my life; she’s just one of those really open, warm people.

John was on hand, along with Billie Jean, mainly to proselytize on behalf of the movie — to do, in the words of McEnoe, “whatever it takes” to broaden the appeal and reach of tennis. Could anyone foresee that McEnroe would become this evangelist, back in those halcyon “pits of the world” or “you cannot be serious!”days?

My, how times change.

And that was evident in the movie itself, which began to roll shortly John and Billie Jean made some fairly lengthy introductory remarks. McEnroe has also become quite the persuasive public speaker.

The movie is excellent (full disclosure: I was interviewed extensively for it, and some of my comments are in the final cut), and surprisingly — and admirably — fair in light of the fact the Baird and Major had the blessing of the Williams family in making it.

Often, that “authorized” imprimatur translates to puffery, either because the principals have editorial control, or the filmmakers/writers are seduced by their co-operative subjects. But Baird and Major did a great job resisting the gravitational pull of the Williams family, and made themselves central enough to their lives that at one point Richard tries to shoo them away, complaining that they’re like an “ex-wife.” The documentary gives the viewer an all-access pass but into the real world of the Williamses, not Candyland.

There are plenty of sweet, heart-warming moments — not all of them built around the easy sympathy and pathos generated by footage of Serena laid out on a hospital dolly, or injecting herself with medication. The scene where the sisters engage in some spontaneous karaoke would make a grump smile, as do the scenes where Serena rolls out her dating preferences (white men, or black?), or where Venus and Serena are asked to number their brothers and sisters.

But the sound bites sometimes have teeth, too. Venus and Serena’s sister Isha bridles when asked about “half-sister” Yetunde, who was shot and killed some years ago in (presumably) a case of mistaken identity. “She isn’t our half-sister,” Isha immediately insists. “We don’t do that half-sister thing. We’re black.” Yet one of the more interesting things about this film, and its subjects, is how small a role race, and racial issues in general, play in the daily lives and actions of the sisters.

The most race-conscious comments in the movie are made by one of the extra-familial “experts” from outside the tennis community, the comedian Chris Rock — and his comments don’t really bring any fresh or new insight to the story. In general, the filmmakers may have relied a little too heavily on the commentary of high-profile “experts” whose names and visages are more memorable than their insights: mainly, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Anna Wintour, and Rock. But those voices are also great advertisements for the film, and if you can’t get people to come see it, or sit up and take notice when they’re watching it, why make it?

One of my favorite scenes is the almost surreal, tense conversation Serena has with hitting partner Sasha Bajin while she’s running on a treadmill in the U.S. Open players’ workout room. Serena accuses him of not playing well enough against her, implying that her struggle with her game at the tournament is partly his fault. Sasha pushes back and stands up for himself, with vigor, while Serena stubbornly keeps repeating her simplistic mantra: “You need to get better.” And in a related scene, she imperiously and almost perversely dumps a mess of practice balls off her racquet and onto the court instead of transferring them to Sasha – it’s as convincing a diva moment as you’ll see, and there’s not a word uttered in the scene.

The replays of those two terrible U.S. Open Serena moments (the infamous foot fault and “Come on” incidents) are well — and freshly — handled, and the filmmakers showed great restraint in not over-emphasizing or over-complicating them. Some of my favorite clips are Oracene moments. Venus and Serena’s mother comes off looking great, and she handles questions about her former husband Richard with a delightful combination of resignation, humor and dignity. Oracene doesn’t seem to say much, but when she says anything – it counts. And that’s even true about the two or three coaching tidbits she delivers (see, who said she’s not their “coach?”).

What really shines through in this movie is the closeness of Venus and Serena — the powerful sisterly bond that has numerous implications and provides untold fodder for the amateur psychologist. Will the women really be content to keep living together and playing tennis, as Venus threatens to do, into their 40s and even 50s? Would either of them ever marry and move out of the house they share, or will there be another film for Baird and Major to shoot in the distant future — something more along the lines of “Grey Gardens?”

That time flies is a given, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the way Venus and Serena are immersed in what has now become a routine so routine that it isn’t even recognized as such. Some of the most charming footage in this movie is of the girls as adolescents, hitting tennis balls on that infamous court in Compton, Ca. - a neighborhood not unlike hundreds of others across the country, but become iconic for its history and legacy of crime and violence.

You look at those two fresh and beaming faces, those Pepsodent sister-smiles, those beaded braids. My, how times change. But perhaps not all that much in the ways that count most.

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