“I’m trying to get the message across that you can be a transsexual or you can be an anything different and yet be a nice, normal, socially acceptable, and productive person in society.”
In the context of the current landscape of pop culture, it’s easy to believe that quote could be from Chaz Bono, whose participation in the current season of Dancing With The Stars is causing headlines, both pro and con. But it actually comes from 35-year-old footage in Renée, another entry in ESPN’s largely stellar series of documentary films. Renée tells the story of tennis player Renée Richards, born Richard Raskin, a groundbreaking athlete whose story, while well-known during the mid-1970s when she caused an uproar on the womens’ tennis circuit, has become lost in the shuffle of an ever-changing sports landscape.
Former agent-turned filmmaker Eric Drath (Assault In The Ring) uses a wealth of archival footage to guide us through Raskin’s early life, a gifted two-sport athlete who chose tennis over baseball, attended Yale, joined the Navy, and appeared the picture of American masculinity but, in truth, was hiding a desire to become a woman, a secret identity he named Renée. Drath’s focus, particularly in the first half of the film, is as much on the perspective of those around Raskin as on Raskin himself during the period of his life when he struggled to come to terms with his warring urges. Friends, family, and former paramours share their concern and shock as he slowly revealed his desire, including a last-ditch five-year marriage that resulted in Raskin’s only son.
And, yet, even as Raskin became Richards, the pull of the court was still too great for Renée to turn down, and she strove to establish a career as a tennis player, a career that caused an uproar when it was learned that she had formerly been a man. The film takes us through Richards’ battles: the opposition from women tennis players (some of whom seemed to fear an epidemic of males become females to compete and win easier), the opposition from tennis associations who implemented the same chromosome testing the Olympics used to confirm an athletes gender (a test Richards refused to submit to), and the legal battle Richards faced in trying to gain access to the career she wanted. Thanks to a court ruling, Richards was finally granted access and found moderate success, even as she continued to battle issues of perception. This middle section of the film moves briskly, summing up Richards’ battles and triumphs in steady succession, even if it becomes a bit muddled transtioning from the end of her career to her current life; that Richards was a former coach for legendary player Martina Navritalova is glossed over in a manner of seconds.
There are times when it feels like Drath begins to scratch the surface of something deeper only to abandon it. Given that there’s only so much time available in which to squeeze Richards’ story–the doc runs just shy of 80 minutes–some things are going to get short shrift. But I counted three references to suicide from Richards, an issue that would have been more beneficial in portraying Richards’ struggle had it been further explored. We hear much about Richards’ internal struggle but more from those around Richards than from Richards herself. That Richards was made to feel an outsider is well established, but the film shies away from the darkest places. Given the 2009 suicide of L.A. transgender sportswriter Mike Penner (who went briefly by the name of Christine Daniels) and the media attention it attracted, it feels like an opportunity to delve further into some of the deepest, darkest psychological effects transgendered people face is wasted.
Similarly, while some of Richards’ friends note the dichotomy of her desire for privacy versus a desire to pursue a career that she should have known would attract public scrutiny, not as much is made of Richards’ thoughts on this contradiction. Rather than shrink away when her participation in a California tournament caused an uproar (25 of 32 entrants pulled out of the tournament in protest), Richards fought on, a defiant though reluctant fighter for change. While her friends note this, Richards doesn’t have much to say about it, and Drath never forces the issue, letting it drop altogether as her notoriety rises and the film pushes on.
Drath gives a complete overview of Richards’ life, her journey, and her struggles along her path to becoming what she is now, even as Richards embraces contradictions: She supports a transgendered person’s right to play but doesn’t believe a man who has become a woman should be allowed to play against women as she had. But even in encompassing a great deal in a short amount of time, there are still holes left unfilled. The estranged relationship between Richards and her son receives the spotlight in the final act of the film, and yet I came away from the film still confused as to the nature of it. To be fair, again, the limited time allotted doesn’t give Drath an opportunity to flesh out such a complicated relationship the way Richards likely has in one of her two autobiographies. But, as in other parts of the film, there’s still a lack of narrative focus on Drath’s part to tease out some of those complexities, an unbalanced focus that ultimately sacrifices some of these key elements.
Overall, Richards' story is a fascinating one and one that's mostly done justice by Drath, even if it leaves as many questions unanswered as it tackles. By the film’s end, we hear Richards reflect on how she feels about her life as it is now, even as her struggle has been forgotten, something that doesn't seem to bother Richards very much, if at all. At a time when Richards’ story should be pushed to the forefront as a reminder of the way we’re repeating history (see: the kerfuffle over Bono), Drath ultimately allows Richards to slink back into the shadows, a contradiction that reflects the film’s unevenness but one that also reflects Richards herself.
- The documentary benefits from a bevy of archived footage, particularly before Raskin became Renée, helping paint the façade that Richards had created to hide his secret from friends and family.
- It’s been said before, but credit is due to ESPN and the producers behind this new round of docs, going back through the 30 For 30 series, for targeting major stories that have been overlooked. Though a big sports fan in my early 30s, this was the first major work on Richards that I’d seen which may have more to do with the subject matter than my ignorance of the topic.
- The film feels like a good companion piece to the 30 For 30 entry Unmatched.
- “Something got lost.”