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Navigating Documentary ‘Venus and Serena’ with the Williams Sisters Was Not Easy

Navigating Documentary 'Venus and Serena' with the Williams Sisters Was Not Easy

Veteran broadcast journalists Maiken Baird and Michelle Major spent four years obtaining access to the private world of tennis superstars the Williams sisters for “Venus and Serena,” which debuted last September at the Toronto Film Festival. But when the tennis documentary distilled from 450 hours of footage finally premiered, it did so without the Williams sisters. On September 11, they withdrew their support of the film.

The sisters signed on knowing they would not have final approval over the film’s content, say the filmmakers. As first reported by the LA Times, they disagreed with  how their father, Richard Williams, was portrayed, and despite several adjustments to the film, the sisters–particularly Venus–were not satisfied at the time of the Toronto premiere. (The festival had moved the premiere date to accommodate their busy schedules.) At a Q & A following the film, Baird said that the Williams sisters simply haven’t had time to adjust to seeing themselves portrayed on film.

They came around in time; Serena provided a video introduction for the NY and LA premieres, reports Major in an email update:

Venus has communicated to us and to the press that she absolutely supports the film. She was launching her clothing line on the same day as the premiere and had to choose between the two events.  She has told us that Toronto was NOT about her having issues with the story, and that she was hurt by that assessment.   Venus puts her tennis and fashion careers first, but is making every effort to get to our London screening premiere when the film is released in Great Britain.

Serena has also come out publicly in support of the film and has told us the same in private.  Serena also sent us a recorded message to play to our NY and LA premiere audiences which explained that she would love to be there but was playing in the Madrid Open. In fact, Serena’s agent Jill Smoller just last night came to the LA premiere screening in support of the film.

The Toronto screening was not a promise but a “we will try,” and in the end there were scheduling conflicts that got in the way.  It may also have been a bit too soon after having seen the film for the first time for Venus and Serena to watch the film with an audience, but at this point they seem to be fine with both us and the film.

The two tennis stars couldn’t have come off better than they did in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s must-read August 26 New York Times Magazine cover profile, which provides insight into why they felt the need to withdraw their public support from “Venus and Serena.” Sullivan’s feature, which was initially “conceived as a story that would mark the decline of their careers, the beginning of a conversation about their legacy,” spends plenty of time portraying their eccentric and self-mythologizing father/coach. And the film digs even further into his out-of-wedlock children and idiosyncratic behavior.

The movie should have been an opportunity to celebrate their career turnaround–the two are again dominating women’s tennis. Injuries and illness be damned, Serena went on to not only win Wimbledon but her fourth US Open title, as well as Olympic Gold in women’s singles and doubles with Venus.

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