When Muhammad Ali died, his praises were sung far and wide. He was a champion, a progressive, a fighter in many arenas. But he was also really good at being a celebrity. He was famous for what he did in the ring, but he became immortal because of what he did outside of it.
Last year, Serena Williams felt like that kind of celebrity. How many other tennis players would get the opportunity to edit an issue of Wired? Or host a show at New York Fashion Week? She hasn’t been as overtly political as Ali, but as Ryan White’s documentary makes clear, Williams is also a bona fide celebrity.
What Williams did throughout the 2015 tennis season was impressive by any standards. She took home three of the four Grand Slam titles and did it in a way that was inherently exciting to watch. She either dominated on the court or gave her hungry audience just enough doubt to believe that she might not actually triumph this time. And she did it while at the wrong end of her career: At 33, she’s considered old. She was fun to watch on the court, even for non-tennis fans who were attracted to her celebrity just as much as they were to her abilities. Serena shows how much fun she is to watch when she’s not carrying a racquet. She’s funny and personable, yet underneath her ability to quote Friday and her love of Disney movies is an intensity and fire that separates the elite athlete from the rest of us mortals.
Serena starts at the Australian Open, the beginning of her phenomenal year, and continues through her upset loss to Roberta Vinci at the U.S. Open. White’s vérité style gives Williams the opportunity to be her own star, with little fancy gimmickry. The best moments are simply Williams being Williams. This is a woman who has been scrutinized by the media essentially since she was a teenager, and she feels natural in front of the camera, if not always vulnerable. White—who did similarly good work with The Beatles’ former secretary in Good Ol’ Freda and marriage equality in The Case Against 8—gets valuable access to Serena’s subject, although the narrative feels like it has some gaps. Williams is rarely alone, and while that is probably a reflection of her real life, Serena misses out on moments where she lets her guard down. With one exception: After Williams loses the U.S. Open, White films her in bed, devastated at the loss.
Despite Williams’ ever-present entourage—from her coach to her agent to her assistant—there’s one conspicuous voice missing: her sister Venus. Williams talks about Venus, her most difficult opponent and roommate, but we rarely get to see or hear from her. White’s doc is about the younger tennis-playing Williams sister, but considering Venus and Serena faced off twice in Grand Slams throughout 2015, Venus’ presence is missed.
White weaves themes from Williams’ career throughout Serena’s narrative. When she’s about to fall in the French Open semifinals to Timea Bacsinszky, White allows interviewees—including Williams—to talk about she’s at her best when she’s down. Through these themes, White shows how Williams can be politicized without even trying. She’s been criticized for her intensity on the court, but what John McEnroe could get away with as a character quirk has different connotations for a black woman. Also, much has been made of Williams’ body: Take the New York Times article about Williams’ physique, tennis, and body image, or when the head of the Russian tennis federation called Venus and Serena “the Williams brothers.” Scenes in Serena show how femininity comes in a variety of different forms, and that Williams can embody them all. Alongside images of her working out, winning titles, and celebrating in triumph, she puts on makeup, tries on clothes, and gallivants to events in gorgeous gowns. Like Ali, Williams refuses to kowtow or change in order to fit in.
What’s so impressive about Serena is Williams herself. The outcome of the documentary is never a secret. She’s going to lose, so there’s a certain momentum taken out of the climactic end. But just as her loss was an inevitable conclusion, so is what happened after: She picked herself up, and started again.