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‘Venus Vs.’ Review: Venus Williams Fights for Gender Equality at Wimbledon in Ava DuVernay’s Rousing Sports Doc

'Venus Vs.' Review: Venus Williams Fights for Gender Equality at Wimbledon in Ava DuVernay's Rousing Sports Doc

Ava DuVernay’s skilled documentary “Venus Vs.,” which debuts on ESPN July 2, charts Venus Williams’ two-year battle from 2005 to 2007 for equal prize money among genders at
Wimbledon. In the film, sports journalist Howard Bryant explains that it takes a certain
collision of factors for someone to be the right and most effective person to
champion a cause. In 1973, it was Billie Jean King. In this millennium it’s Williams,
a superstar in the world of tennis who also understands acutely what it is to be an
outsider in that sport — racially, economically and in terms of gender.

Though King eventually pressured the US Open to agree to
equal compensation, at the time it was the only one of the four tournaments to change,
with the European and Australian Opens holding their macho ground for subsequent
decades. King is one of the pro tennis player interviewees in the documentary, along with Maria Sharapova and John

Williams, who recently announced her withdrawal from this year’s Wimbledon due to back injuries, is the centerpiece of the film’s talking heads,
exuding a quiet gentleness at odds with her ferocious swing and visceral war
cry on the tennis courts. In a confident yet not cocky way she explains how she
lobbied British Parliament, and wrote a frank op-ed piece for the London Times,
in which she overhead-smashed Wimbledon for being “on the wrong side of history.”
(One of the delights of the film is the Parliament footage of then member Janet Anderson raising
the issue  — amid the usual vocal clamor
that comes with hot-button issues — and Tony Blair taking a clear side: “I
welcome what she said, and endorse it fully.”)

In a well-choreographed sequence, DuVernay crosscuts between Williams and former
Women’s Tennis Association chairman Larry Scott, explaining how in 2005 Williams pointedly showed up for a Grand Slam Committee meeting the night before the
Wimbledon final. Needless to say, she was juggling priorities. Yet she felt strongly about the issue, and ad-libbed an inspirational speech that stunned the entire room.

Unlike Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s 2012 documentary “Venus and Serena” — which centers
more heavily on the sisters’ professional careers but also, to the scattered
detriment of the film, on their personal lives — DuVernay’s documentary is a
succinct, focused ode to Williams’ cause for gender equality. This isn’t to
say we don’t get to see tennis in “Venus Vs.” Cleverly, DuVernay incorporates footage
from some of Williams’ most stunning matches as a way of not only communicating
visually the blood, sweat and tears going into the battle for women’s respect
on the courts, but also as a demonstration of how ludicrous the hoary claim is
that women’s matches aren’t as “entertaining” as men’s.

Anyone in doubt of the sheer magnetic force of female
athleticism at its peak needs to watch Williams and arch-rival Lindsay
Davenport’s epic 2005 showdown at Wimbledon, which Williams would ultimately
win. DuVernay includes the final portion from this game,
which gave me both goosebumps and a lump in the throat. Yet seeing such a match in the context of Wimbledon then refusing Williams
the same prize money as Roger Federer is effective in a completely different

DuVernay, who was recently named one of Indiewire’s Influencers and whose previous feature “Middle of Nowhere” garnered acclaim and awards in 2012, frames her interviewees unusually. She makes the
viewer notice the face of the person talking but also the environment
surrounding — even looming over — them. The decision to put Billie Jean King
in the bottom-right corner of the frame at first seems odd, but the result is
that we understand her as one part of a much bigger picture. 

In terms of sound,
the film opens with various disparaging soundbites from sexist tennis players and sports commentators alike about the inferiority of
women’s tennis; eventually a catchy, bass-inflected score takes over, adding a
propulsive dynamism, as if moving away from backward notions about gender and
toward something new. Such filmmaking momentum is warranted, as we’re brought to
the rewarding conclusion that in 2007 Williams’ perseverance paid off —
literally, for her, as she not only won the case for equal prize money but then
received the same amount as men’s champion Federer when she won Wimbledon
that year.  

“Venus Vs.” is the kick-off documentary in ESPN’s Nine for
IX series
, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and it’s a
rousing and appropriate testament to the strength of women athletes — and women
filmmakers, for that matter.

“Venus Vs.” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and debuts on ESPN July 2.

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