When filmmakers decide to follow subjects around over a specified period of time, it can be something of a crapshoot. Venus and Serena Williams have been tennis’ reigning superstars for more than a decade, but it just so happens that Venus And Serena, the first major documentary portrait of the sisters, was shot over the course of arguably the worst professional year of their lives (2011), during which Serena was recovering from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and Venus withdrew from the circuit entirely due to struggles with an autoimmune disorder. Unfortunately, those setbacks don’t fit the triumphal template the movie’s directors seem to have in mind; instead of an unexpectedly bracing and intimate warts-and-all doc, they serve up a compromised conventional hagiography, more or less shrugging off the bad times. (A quick summary of the 2012 season, during which both sisters rebounded, ends the film on a high note.)
To be fair, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of dirt to be found. Both Venus and Serena have nothing but praise for their father, who willed them into being as tennis prodigies by shoving rackets into their hands practically straight out of the womb. (A more interesting documentary could perhaps be made on the correlation between world-class talent and incredibly pushy parents. See also Mozart, Michael Jackson, etc.) Serena’s occasional outbursts at lineswomen and umpires is addressed, and correctly dismissed (by John McEnroe) as behavior that tends to be much less controversial when it comes from a white male (like John McEnroe). At one point, Venus observes that being a Jehovah’s Witness makes it difficult for her to consider getting married, as the religion demands that she be subservient to her husband, but no sooner is this provocative statement made than it’s completely forgotten.
For the most part, Venus And Serena provides a basic introduction to the Williams sisters, juxtaposing archival footage from their childhood days in Compton with the usual assortment of talking heads (Bill Clinton, Chris Rock, Gay Talese) and un-illuminating behind-the-scenes glimpses of the ill-fated 2011 tour. There’s surprisingly little on-court action (perhaps because it was too expensive to license) and no real discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the sisters’ respective games. What comes across most strongly is the genuine, overpowering love these two women have for each other, even when they’re in direct competition. (At this writing, Serena has won 14 of their 24 singles matches.) The moment when Serena beats Venus at the 2002 French Open, and Venus runs to the stands to get a camera so she can take a picture of her sister with the cup, can’t help but bring a tear to the eye.