Director Ava DuVernay further displays the fascinating reaches of her talents with her latest project, Venus Vs. a sports documentary for ESPN centered exclusively on the inspirational Venus Williams. DuVernay, who began her directorial career in documentary, but is now perhaps more widely recognized for her expertly hewn pair of dramas, I Will Follow in 2011 and Middle of Nowhere in 2012 (for which you can add the parenthetical moniker “trailblazer,” as she’s the first black woman to take home the Best Director prize at Sundance), astoundingly revealed that she’s not well versed in the sports or tennis realm. Perhaps this is why the film, which follows on the heels of another doc focusing on the Williams sisters that opened earlier this year, feels so readily accessible to all. The film will air on ESPN (July) for their project “Nine for IX” (as in Title IX), though with DuVernay’s film leading the pack, it’s hard to see any of the other entries topping the craftsmanship on display here.
At a mere 50 minute running time, Venus Vs. has little to say about the renowned tennis player’s life story or even her multiple Wimbledon wins. Instead, DuVernay focuses on a less recognized accomplishment of Venus Williams, her struggle to achieve equal pay for female tennis players. For those ignorant of the tennis realm, there’s an abundant history on display here that is both eye-opening and shocking. For those more hip to the game, you’ll hardly bat at an eye at the blatant sexism and gender inequality in the sports arena of today’s modern world.
Featuring footage of the adolescent Venus growing up in Compton and voicing her dreams to play Wimbledon, DuVernay back tracks to the birth of the equal pay struggle, beginning in 1968 when an outspoken Billie Jean King won Wimbledon and was paid a paltry sum of prize money compared to then male champion, Rod Laver. While King was responsible for persuading the U.S. Open to pay men and women equally, the other three Grand Slam Tournaments (which also includes France and Australia), never followed suit. Laying this groundwork, with plenty of expertly placed stock footage of King (who is also on hand for commentary on Venus) and other historically renowned female tennis athletes, the focus comes back to Venus’ story and her initial controversial entry in the tennis world.
With the grace and agility of some Amazonian queen, Venus and her beaded hair placed women’s tennis in the public eye as it had rarely ever been before, and DuVernay gets an excellent amount of academic opinion exploring the subconscious racism that was behind the reception of the Williams sisters.
And standing in the middle of her inspirational story is a lovely interview from Venus Williams herself, a candid conversation well worth the price of admission. DuVernay’s expert pacing makes the feature fly by, and with a team of three separate directors of photography for her multiple locations (Arthur Jafa, Kate Reid, Hans Charles), one quickly notices a definite design at play with carefully composed frames meant to reflect the multiple personalities featured throughout. And, as DuVernay herself acknowledges, one cannot forget to mention the expert editing here from Spencer Averick.
Venus Vs. is guided by an enormous amount of stock footage, and its more than evident that much time and deliberation went into the selection of the most minute details. As with DuVernay’s previous works, her latest is not to be missed.
Reviewed on June 19 at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival – Summer Showcase