Sunday, May 12, 2013

Venus and Serena – The film – A review

Maiken Baird
Michelle Major

Written by:
Michelle Major

My father had a lifelong passion for tennis and introduced me to the game at an early age.  I consider myself fortunate to have an appreciation for this game and to have lived at a time when Venus and Serena Williams competed.  In my opinion, their story is one of the most compelling in the history of all sports.   

I first saw Venus Williams compete at the U.S. Open before she became a champion.  At the time, I had never seen a woman play tennis who had that kind of power.  I knew that if she could control her power she would dominate the game.  She certainly did that.

The background to this story

The film Venus and Serena gives the background to their lives and begins to explain why they became so successful in this sport.  While I’ve never met the Williams sisters, this review will look at some issues that the film didn’t cover.

Venus and Serena’s father is Richard Williams.  Richard Williams was born and raised in Louisiana, and in the film he spoke about how he had been brutalized during those years.  Eventually he lived in the inner city of Compton, California, where he taught the Williams sisters to play tennis.   

In Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns – the epic story of America’s Great Migration, she wrote about Dr. Robert Foster who also was born and raised in Louisiana, and then migrated to California.  She wrote about how Dr. Foster wasn’t able to make many stops on his way to California in 1953, because there were few hotels that would allow him to stay due to the color of his skin.  Dr. Foster’s experience was similar to immigrants from all over the world.  He left a place where he didn’t want to be, and went to a place where he wasn’t wanted.

Wilkerson also wrote about how there was an entire African American community that had migrated from Louisiana to California.  One family that migrated was the basketball star Bill Russell’s parents.  Another migrant was Geronimo Pratt.  Pratt became a leader of the Black Panthers.  He served about 29 years in prison for a murder the courts eventually argued that he did not commit.

Understanding that this was the environment Richard Williams needed to deal with, his story becomes much more compelling.  Certainly, Mr. Williams didn’t learn the finer points of tennis during his childhood in Louisiana.  Eventually he learned how tennis was a game that young Black women could excel in.  Armed with this knowledge, as well as his history of brutalization in Louisiana, he trained two of his daughters to excel in the game.   Mr. Williams also taught his children to be proud of the fact that they are Black.

Richard Williams wasn’t the only parent who raised his children to succeed.  Certainly, Oracene Price, the Williams sister’s mother was a big part of their story. 

Other parents of star performers

Andre Agassi’s father was also a taskmaster to his son.  Agassi also became one of the dominant tennis players of his day. 

I listened to an interview with Agassi when he talked about his autobiography, Open.  He said that he hated the pressure cooker atmosphere of competitive tennis.  He also admitted to using methamphetamine to relieve the stress he felt.

A better person to compare Richard Williams to would be Joe Jackson who was the father of Michael Jackson.  Both Williams and Jackson raised their children to go right to the top of their avocations.  Both Williams and Jackson were taskmasters who required their children to focus on their talent and to avoid the day-to-day activities children normally participate in.  Both the Williams and Jackson families were, or continue to be, Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

While Richard Williams was born in Louisiana, Joe Jackson was raised in Arkansas and migrated to Gary, Indiana.  In Gary, Joe Jackson became a steel worker and did everything in his power to make sure his children didn’t endure a similar fate.  Unlike the story of Richard Williams, Joe Jackson admits to having beaten Michael Jackson.  In the film Venus and Serena, there was no allegation made that Richard Williams beat his children.

Clearly there have been problems between the Williams sisters and their father.  Oracene Price also has a few unkind words to say about her former husband.  In no way am I attempting to say that these views were not legitimate.  All I’m attempting to say is that Richard Williams’ effort to make his daughters into world champions was a truly compelling story.

Why is the Williams sisters story so compelling? 

While others have been burnt out after a few years of competition, both Williams sisters have remained champions for over a decade.  They have done this through serious injuries or illnesses.  They have done this while being booed because of the color of their skin.  They have done this while enduring the murder of a sister.  They have done this in a sport that attracts the affluent, while being raised in the inner city of Compton, California.

My favorite match of the many wonderful matches I’ve seen of the Williams sisters was one between Justine Henin and Serena Williams at the French Open.  Justine Henin may have been one of the best players in woman’s tennis during the time the Williams sisters competed.  Henin was thin, fast, and she could hit the ball hard.  Henin was also cool under pressure and a player needed to play a better game to defeat her, because she would not beat herself.

This was a wonderful match that was only decided by the last few points.  During the match some of the French fans, in all their stupidity, booed Serena.  These French fans must have forgotten that French colonial armies had been defeated by armies of people who were not Caucasian in places like Algeria, Haiti, and Vietnam.

On this day, Henin won the few points that enabled her to win the match.  However, Serena Williams never gave up, and played hard until the end.  Serena would be a champion for a much longer period of time than Justine Hardin, and win more championships. 

In the film, Venus and Serena, Serena Williams talked about why she has been so competitive on the tennis court.  She said that she didn’t want to be another statistic.  In other words, her background was a clear factor in her outstanding success.   

This is a story of how two young sisters managed to overcome nearly insurmountable odds to become world champions for over a decade.  This is a story of how they have done this while remaining proud of who they are. 

Certainly, the world’s problems will not be solved by world champion tennis players.  However, this story is about how it was indeed possible for two young talented Black women from an inner city of this country to gain the discipline to achieve their goals.  While there have been many others who have achieved other momentous goals, certainly Venus and Serena Williams deserve their place in history.                                

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