Venus Vs.: LAFF Review

A rousing sports doc wins a match point for women players.

The documentary chronicles Venus Williams' fight for equal pay for women tennis players.

Tennis champion Venus Williams is fascinating enough to have inspired two documentaries.  Earlier this spring Venus and Serena centered on her relationship with her sister and fellow competitor, Serena Williams.  Now Venus Vs. plays at LA Film Fest before its premiere on ESPN on July 2.  This 50-minute film directed by Ava DuVernay (who impressed critics with her dramatic film, Middle of Nowhere, last year) is not a comprehensive portrait of Williams’ life but focuses primarily on her fight to win equal pay for female tennis players.  It’s a stirring story that is skillfully rendered here.

The battle actually began 45 years ago, when Billie Jean King won Wimbledon and earned less than half the pay snagged by male champion Rod Laver.  King began the fight for equal pay and eventually succeeded in persuading the U.S. Open to offer the same prize money to men and women.  But the other three Grand Slam tournaments—the French Open, the Australian Open, and the crown jewel of Wimbledon—continued to pay women less.  Women’s prize money rose over the years but still did not equal that of the male stars.  King, who is interviewed extensively in the doc, explains that it would require another strong-willed, highly visible woman to take the fight to the next level.  The arrival of Venus Williams, a native of Compton, led to the next chapter.

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DuVernay sketches Williams’ early success at the age of 14 and chronicles her first victory at Wimbledon in 2000, when she was paid about 80 per cent of what her male counterpart, Pete Sampras, received.  Some male players and officials try to rationalize the unequal pay.  But as other officials point out, women and men both draw the same sized audiences to these tournaments.  One of the most persuasive interviewees is John McEnroe, who says that he probably shared in these sexist prejudices when he was a star player, but his experience as the father of four daughters changed his point of view.

Even when the French and Australians eventually succumbed to girl power, the stodgy Brits resisted.  Williams eventually made a personal appearance before the Wimbledon committee, wrote a persuasive article for the London Times, and even helped to persuade Parliament and Prime Minister Tony Blair to take up the issue.  When she won her fourth Wimbledon championship in 2007, she finally got the same pay as her male counterpart, Roger Federer.

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Throughout the tight, well paced film, Williams emerges as a colorful, combative, articulate presence.  Her competitiveness on the court served her well when she took up Billie Jean King’s battle behind the scenes.  Venus paid tribute to King after her victory, and it’s heartening to see solidarity across the generations.

Director-screenwriter:  Ava DuVernay.

Producers:  Howard Barish, Ava DuVernay.

Directors of photography:  Arthur Jafa, Kate Reid, Hans Charles.

Editor:  Spencer Averick.

No rating, 50 minutes.