Intimate Look at the Williams Sisters

Director explains how Venus and Serena doc explores the way their enigmatic dad shaped their lives.

Venus and Serena Williams (Greg Wood/Getty Images)
Venus and Serena Williams (Greg Wood/Getty Images)

(The Root) — It’s tough being a black female athlete in America, especially if you’re crushing the competition in a predominantly white sport like tennis where fans have called you “nigger” midgame.

In Venus and Serena, the new documentary that hit select theaters recently, director and producer Michelle Major and her team dug into the lives of the Williams sisters during 2011. With unfettered access, the cameras caught the pair practicing with their parents, recovering from injuries with blood-filled IV bags and learning from John McEnroe when to curse out referees — and Serena smooching with then-boyfriend Common.

But for all the behind-the-scenes access, including a moment in which their mother, Oracene Price, fusses after being questioned by a British reporter about why Serena grunts, many critics complained that the film doesn’t reveal any new information for avid tennis fans.

“We’ve heard that, but we think it’s incredibly revealing,” Major told The Root. “We went into this because there was so much mythology and so many negative stories around these two women who deserved to have their stories told truthfully, whatever it was. Also, their father, Richard Williams, is portrayed in the media as [a] sinister Svengali who’s ‘puppeteering’ his daughters, and we wanted to get to the bottom of that.”

One of the biggest reveals is the sisters’ relationship with their enigmatic father, coach and ultimate motivator. It is the challenge of his role in Venus’ early career that creates tension in the film. Specifically, when tennis coach Rick Macci is interviewed, he says that Richard wrote and asked Macci to mentor his daughters.

Macci says he did just that, even funding the family’s move to Florida, where the siblings could practice around the clock, thanks to the weather, and putting Richard on his payroll. However, when Venus began her athletic ascent, Richard fired Macci. When asked in the film about her influential coaches, Venus never mentions him.

“I’m glad you saw that,” Major said. “We asked her over and over again about her coaches, and she’d say ‘my sister’ or ‘my mother,’ and finally she asked me, ‘Who do you mean?’ and that’s when you hear me say, ‘Rick Macci says he coached you quite a bit … ‘ I expected she’d bring him up, but her father is all that matters.

“She doesn’t feel that Rick Macci should get any more credit than he already has,” she continued. “She and her father are so close, and she wanted to focus on how amazing he was, and she doesn’t like anybody who tries to take that credit away.”