"Nine for IX," ESPN's new documentary series about female sport figures from women directors, begins tonight with "Venus Vs.," a film from Ava DuVernay ("Middle of Nowhere") that looks at tennis star Venus Williams and her fight to secure equal prize money for men and women at Wimbledon. It's an appropriate kickoff topic for the series, tennis being the foremost sport in which the female competitors secure as much attention as the men in a pro realm otherwise overwhelmingly skewed toward male-dominated games. (Of the films in the initial "30 for 30" series to which "Nine for IX" is a companion, only two were about women -- Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern's "Unmatched," about the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and John Singleton's "Marion Jones: Press Pause.")
Billie Jean King campaigned for equal prize money when the open era began, convincing the US Open to become the first to make the change in 1973. Since then, others have followed, save Wimbledon and the French Open, who held onto the tradition of awarded less money to their female champions until 2007. Wimbledon, at least, bowed to pressure in large part because of Williams, who as the film shows spoke out against the pay disparity when many others kept silent, and who penned an impassioned 2006 editorial on the subject in the Times of London that led to a parliament discussion.
"Venus Vs." suggests Williams felt more comfortable voicing her feelings because she came from outside the typical confines of tennis, a sport that's tended to be associated with the wealthy and white, and that it took a new perspective to change the system. (While the film includes past interview clips of a few male players speaking out against equal pay, only John McEnroe goes on camera to speak for it -- in the Q&A following ESPN's New York screening last week, DuVernay said that he was the only male player they reached out to, former or current, who agreed to appear.)
The story of Williams' efforts to remedy Wimbledon's prize money inequality is rousing, if told with efficient slickness. It's the earlier part of the film, which tracks Williams' rise from young girl practicing with her sister in Compton in 1991 through to her early years of dominating the circuit a decade ago, that's infused with a sense of quiet elation. Williams, six foot one, African American and coached by her dad, looked little like most of the players she went up against, and the film looks at the incident in which Irina Spîrlea deliberately shoulder-checked her during a changeover in US Open semifinals match in 1997, and the one in which she was deducted a point when beads fell out of her hair at the 1999 Australian Open.
The film's admiration of Williams' success in a world unsure what to make of her and prone to treat her as, in its words, an "interloper," and its admonitions about how the Williams sisters were discussed in the media when they first burst onto the scene, are where DuVernay's touch shines through in an otherwise elegantly made but straightforward work. As the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, she surely knows the feeling of standing out in a field that's far from diverse, and about how that can also help you understand that change is something you can, and should, be empowered to bring about yourself.