Serena Williams – I’m a huge fan of tennis and a huge fan of the Williams sisters. So when I discovered that TIFF had programmed a feature length documentary about them in the 2012 line-up I was eager to see it.
The documentary is co-directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major and produced by Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney and edited by Sam Pollard, frequent Spike Lee collaborator. Having wooed the sisters for over four years, the filmmakers were given unprecedented access to their lives, recording some 450 hours of footage over the course of 20 months.
It features interviews with family, friends and business associates as well as commentary by people as varied as Anna Wintour, John McEnroe and Bill Clinton speaking to their wider significance as African American trailblazers. Chris Rock encapsulates the sentiment many of us felt on seeing the sisters first emerge on the scene with their trademark cornrows and beads, “I remember the braids; they were like black-black, not country-club black.”
It’s impossible to talk about this work without talking about the controversy surrounding the film itself which threatened to eclipse its screening in Toronto. As already reported on this blog, the Williams sisters opted not to travel to the film’s premiere and subsequently issued a statement withdrawing their support from the project, primarily due to its portrayal of their father Richard Williams.
It is revealed that Richard is also father to a string of illegitimate children, of whom Venus and Serena are aware but struggle to list. At one point a young boy turns up with Richard to one of their practices and refers to him as “Dad”, much to their consternation. The sisters at times express frustration with their father’s coaching methods and antics and endorse their parents’ decision to divorce. In one especially memorable segment Oracene Price, when asked what advice she would give to Richard’s new wife, says, drily, “Run”.
There is also a claim from Rick Macci, an early coach, that he is equally responsible for the girl’s development but that Richard Williams ditched him on the eve of their first lucrative endorsement deal, despite promises that they would prosper together. While the Williams clan acknowledge his contribution, it’s a betrayal they flatly deny.
Other than the these revelations, for anyone familiar with the William’s sisters rise, the film doesn’t break much new ground. With a lively edit underpinned by a Wyclef Jean soundtrack, the film summarizes the sisters’ journey to the top of the professional game using archival footage and clippings. We see them as youngsters on the Compton courts, Richard lugging a shopping trolley full of used balls behind him. We’re given an account of his highly unorthodox training methods and the impetus behind his grand scheme…
Read more: Lisa Harewood, Indie Wire