(The Root) — Despite published reports that tennis’s famously private sisters Venus and Serena Williams were unhappy with a revealing new documentary, aptly titled Venus and Serena, filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major have said that they think the sisters are actually behind the film.
The film’s unapologetic portrayal of Richard Williams, the sisters’ hard-driving father, was reported to have been the reason the tennis champs did not attend the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. They didn’t show up at the U.S. premiere during Doc NYC in November, either, just after superstorm Sandy hit.
In an interview with The Root, however, Major, a former ABC News journalist, claimed that she never felt Venus and Serena were not supporting the film. “We can’t really say whether they changed their minds,” Major said. “I think it’s just sort of a growing process at the moment. You know you just sort of grow into something that may feel uncomfortable initially.”
The directors, who are currently trying to secure distribution, followed the sisters throughout 2011. Baird said that they had virtually unlimited access after spending four years getting the rights to make the documentary. “We just kept persevering and basically were able to, I guess, get the confidence … ,” explained Baird, an indie filmmaker who produced Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer with Academy Award-winning director and producer Alex Gibney. “[The sisters] decided this was the right time, actually, and they did want this film made about them and their legacy.” (It also may not have hurt that both filmmakers are women and Major is black.)
In the documentary, viewers can see Venus and Serena in some very intimate moments — including without makeup and hair extensions. We get a closer exploration of Serena’s near-fatal blood clots and lung problems, as well as Venus’ debilitating autoimmune disease — known as Sjogren’s syndrome — that can cause fatigue and joint pain.
The personal lives of the sisters are also laid bare in the documentary. At one point Serena claims that she is only into black guys, even though there are reports of her dating Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, who is white. Both sisters joke about how they are probably each other’s best date and how neither is willing to move out of the house they share in Miami to get married.
Going into the project, the filmmakers thought there would be sibling rivalry but found just the opposite. “We were really surprised to find out how truly close they are, how they defend each other and [are] incredibly protective of each other,” Major said.
“Serena is the little sister who kind of gets her way quite a lot of the time, and Venus is the protector who takes photos of her little sister when [Serena] beats her at the French Open. And she really means it — it’s not fake,” Baird added.
Yet another revealing and candid moment catches Serena saying that she will have to “work forever” to support her extended family. Some of the most compelling moments involve their father, Richard.
For better or worse, he has been called a Svengali for the way he guided their careers, from teaching them tennis on the inner-city courts of Compton, Calif., to raising his fist defiantly during a match in California’s Indian Wells where Serena was booed. There are a few revelations about the elder Williams, including one account of a particularly interesting day when he brings a young man to Serena’s practice who calls him “Dad.” That’s when she seems to find out that he is most likely a stepbrother she never knew about.
When Serena is later asked on camera how many children her father has, she loses count. On the other hand, their mother, Oracene Price, is portrayed in a rather flattering light as a driving force on the court and off. Serena admits that Richard criticized, while Oracene reinforced confidence.
The documentary also includes commentary about the sisters from several well-known people, including President Bill Clinton, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, tennis great John McEnroe and comedian Chris Rock — who noticed the sisters the minute they got on the tennis scene. (“I remember the braids. They were like black-black, not country club black,” Rock says in one of the film’s interviews.)
Both Baird and Major are tennis fans and Williams supporters, traits that come across in their attempt to create a balanced depiction of the tennis triumphs and the touchier aspects of the sports stars’ lives. “They were just these two African-American sisters from Compton who were breaking into a very white sport,” Baird said. “It was just an incredible phenomenon. For me, I just thought it would make for an incredibly interesting film.”
Major agreed, calling the Williams sisters’ athletic achievements an example of “the ultimate American story.”
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.