(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."
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.