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)

Throwing a wrench in their father-daughter relationship is the matter of unidentified half-siblings. Before Richard and Oracene married, Richard had another relationship that produced five children, a fact that Venus and Serena know. He has other children, too, however. One possible older brother awkwardly appears on the court next to Richard during one scene, and in the next, Serena says she has no idea who the man is.

“Richard Williams is a total enigma. I was talking to Richard, and the other gentleman was introduced as his son,” Major said. “I innocently asked Serena who he was, and that’s when she gave me that answer. I didn’t know if she was joking — because she has a wicked sense of humor — until I asked others in the family and they said, ‘No, that’s true [she doesn’t know him].’ I think that was how they were shielded in their family, to not even have to experience the older siblings.”

One reality the pair weren’t sheltered from is the racist underbelly of tennis and the game’s seemingly fickle fans. During the infamous Indian Wells Masters tournament, the Williams family, and Serena specifically, were booed and called “nigger” by fans. In response, Richard raised a black power fist toward the crowd.

Serena won, but the sisters never returned to that tournament. Serena likened their decision to the anti-racism protests of Martin Luther King Jr., saying that she had to stand up for herself.

“Through filming, we learned how they deal with criticism through their incredible drive, especially with Serena,” Major says. “She can have things broken and still win because of her mental toughness. We didn’t really understand that the only reason Serena plays tennis is because her big sister did. It’s crazy.”

Ultimately, Venus and Serena is an interesting look at two African-American athletes building upon the legacy of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. From the early footage of the sisters practicing on the courts of Compton, Calif., to winning doubles at Wimbledon, theirs is a bond built to defend each other and make both of them great.

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.