Since the first moment Venus Williams picked up the racket on the tennis courts of Compton, California, the former No. 1 world tennis player has swung her way to seven Grand Slam singles titles and 22 overall. Her career is admirable, but as an African-American woman, her climb up the rankings was met with frustration.
On the eve of her third Wimbledon title in 2005, she bravely faced a room full of tournament officials and argued that paying men more than women in prize money was unfair. She asked for equality, but they rejected her request.
However, Williams did not give up her fight until the pay scales were balanced for both genders. Director Ava DuVernay uncovered Williams’ inspiring story in the documentary Venus Vs., which will air on ESPN Tuesday, July 2.
DuVernay, who is the first African-American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, spoke with BET.com and shared some insights about the making of the new film which chronicles Williams' adversities throughout her career.
BET.com: First off, could you explain why you named the film Venus Vs.?
Ava Duvernay: Yeah, because I really want to leave it open so that you can see all the battles that she had and when you hear Venus Vs., you think of an opponent’s name. And we do show you a number of riveting matches that she takes on during the film, like, you know, on-the-court matches, but there are also, you know, foes off the court, and there are a number of them. So, you know, it keeps it open to that idea that she has kind of been in this constant fight, this constant battle since she first came on the scene. And I think it’s something that we don’t think about quite enough when we consider her legacy. So the title is to kind of get you in fight-mode.
BET.com: Why did you choose to tell this story?
Ava Duvernay: I was approached by ESPN after our Sundance experience with a film called Middle of Nowhere, and I got a call from them asking if there was anything I was interested in, and it had to be in the realm of sports. Certainly, she’s someone that I’ve admired and had a lot of attention on for quite a while. She’s from Compton, I’m from Compton. I always felt like she was a hometown girl from what I always watched and always liked to, you know, kind of follow her.
So yeah, it was really a matter of searching for an aspect of Venus that might be different than what we know. And when I came across this story, actually a friend told me, “I thought I heard something about her, like, signing for something in England.” This is really wide open, and when I researched it and found the story, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about it. I couldn’t believe that no one I asked knew about it, and we really felt like it was an important story, the American papers and press didn’t cover it, and it was so dynamic, that I felt it was a story that really needed to be told, so, that’s what we did.
BET.com: And so, how did you go about connecting with Venus?
Ava Duvernay: I reached out, and told her the idea, and she said yes, and we started filming. It was very, very, she was very cooperative, very open, very hands-off, which was lovely. I only finished the film about two weeks ago, and she only saw the film last week, so she was never, kind of, over my shoulder or, she just let me be the filmmaker and have my process, which was lovely. And yeah, it was a really, really beautiful experience.
BET.com: I know you said that someone had told you about the pay disparity in tennis, especially in Wimbledon. What was your initial reaction to finding out about that?
Ava Duvernay: I don’t know if I had a huge emotional response to it until I started to really research it. I mean, it’s not my field, you know, we hear about pay disparity across all kinds of forums and arenas, so it’s not something that shocking.
Women are historically and currently paid substantially lower across the board worldwide than their male counterparts. But I think it is a little shocking to think that a sport that is on such a world stage, that has huge sponsors and huge superstars, since 1968 to 2007, that the women accepted being paid less.
We trace the history of it in the film. Billie Jean King stood up and said no, we want more, and she was able to incrementally get it up little by little, but it was never equal. And 2007 was six years ago, I mean, that was, like, yesterday. I mean, this is not, like, black and white TV.
This is just a few years ago that major players and major sponsors and major broadcasters were all working under a realm of inequality, and we know it was really Venus who, with a major voice, stood up and said, “This is not right. We've got to do something about this.” And I think that’s pretty incredible considering that she came into the game as an outsider, and eventually became the ultimate insider who was able to change something that hadn’t been changed.
BET.com: And as a Black filmmaker, why was it important to include a backstory of her beads falling on the floor and her getting a penalty for that, and just all of those obstacles as far as her being an outsider, especially for her skin color?
Ava Duvernay: Well, I think, as filmmakers, I think the best filmmakers are telling stories that interest them, and I’m a Black woman filmmaker who is focused and really committed to telling stories about Black women. I think there’s universality in our specificity, and so I never try to homogenize and make it, “Oh, this will be acceptable to everyone.” I make it very specific to what I would like, and I like to know about sisters.
So I’m very interested in the story about how a bead fell off on the court and this 19-year-old Black woman had to fight for a point because they were trying to take a point off because a bead fell out of her hair, whereas they didn’t take a point off of another person whose barrette fell out of her hair because it was different hair. That’s something that is of interest to me as a sister.
BET.com: Do you feel that she gets the credit she deserves at this point in her career?
Ava Duvernay: No. I think we regard her as the tremendous athlete that she is, but she is undercredited for the amazing, very compelling intellect that she is. She’s just a very well read, very smart woman.
I hope that this film shows people another side of her and compels people to reexamine what they think of her. Because I think a real champion, you look at the Muhammad Alis, the Jackie Robinsons, you look at the Martina Navratilovas, the Billie Jean Kings, the people who became larger than just their on-the-court athletics, but really transcended to help causes within their sport, those are really the true champions, and so, I really think she’s in that league.
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(Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images for WIF)
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