The new documentary “Venus and Serena” reinforces what we already know: The two Williams sisters from Compton, Calif., are remarkable tennis champions whose forceful serves and aggressive play made them two of the dominant athletes of their era. Does the film pull back the curtain on who they are and what drives them? Not so much.
Most of the documentary was shot in 2011, one of worst years professionally for both women because of health issues. Venus had to drop out of the tennis circuit when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, and younger sister Serena suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. This allows the filmmakers to focus on the adversity that elite athletes face when injuries sideline them. It also sets up a triumphant ending, with the film recapping the sisters’ redemptive 2012 season. Unfortunately, the later scenes change the tempo and focus in a way that feels like an addendum.
Sports journalists Maiken Baird and Michelle Major made the documentary with the cooperation of the very private Williams sisters. The result is a respectful sports profile that benefits from access but also observes too many boundaries. As just one example, we’re told that Serena remains a devoted Jehovah’s Witness, including going door-to-door to spread the word of the religion she grew up with, but there’s no footage of that. (What a missed opportunity for the filmmakers.)
The formidable Richard Williams, who pushed his daughters into the sport as young girls and who still plays a huge role in their careers, gets too little scrutiny and time in the spotlight. Meanwhile, talking heads such as tennis icon Billie Jean King, comedian Chris Rock, and, oddly and far too much, former president Bill Clinton offer articulate observations but few revelations. Serena’s controversial outbursts at umpires are addressed briefly, with legendary bad boy John McEnroe providing insightful commentary about sexist and racist elements of the sport that judged her more harshly than white players such as him were criticized.
Unlike, say, “Knuckleball” or “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals,” “Venus and Serena” shows no interest in revealing what’s under the polished surface of its subjects. But what does come across is the genuine bond between the sisters and the healthy competition they share. Footage of Serena beating Venus at the 2002 French Open remains exhilarating, especially when a jubilant Venus runs up into the stands for a camera to take a photo of her sister hoisting the cup. Some moments transcend hagiography.