In the latest wrinkle in its “30 for 30” documentary brand, ESPN has commissioned a series of films devoted to women in sports and the landmark 40-year-old Title IX ruling that mandated equal support for women’s athletics. Presented under the heading “Nine for IX,” the first, “Venus Vs.,” certainly sets a tone for the series, capturing Venus Williams’ fight to bring equal prize money to women’s tennis. Written, co-produced and directed by Ava Duvernay, it’s a solid hour, albeit one that perhaps tries to cover too much ground while also being notable for its Venus-serving omissions.
Set to music that proves a little too urgent and relentless throughout, “Venus Vs.” is at its best when focusing on the energy Williams’ arrival as a teenage phenom brought to the sport, as well as the cultural rift and occasional condescension from tennis snobs in having a young African-American woman invade a country-club game. (A telling sequence revisits Venus being penalized for having one of her hair beads fly off during a match.)
Still, the gist of the story involves the push to equalize tournament compensation, beginning with Billie Jean King’s advocacy decades earlier, when she earned less than half what her male counterparts did. In that regard, the most symbolic domino involves Wimbledon, and the reticent Williams somewhat reluctantly takes a leadership role in the campaign to pressure the tournament to level the playing field.
The fight for equal pay certainly a perfect fit with the “Nine for IX” theme, although the documentary skips over pertinent aspects of Williams’ career, making absolutely zero mention of her relationship with her sister, Serena, and the impact having both of them winning tournaments had; some of the missteps involving their father/coach Richard; and the second-guessing directed their way (not all of it undeserved) for those instances when the sisters wound up competing against each other. Other than a few magazine covers flashing by, this is strictly Venus’ story, which somewhat diminishes the multiplying effect of the Williamses as a duo, addressed more directly in the documentary “Venus and Serena.”
Less gregarious than her younger sister, Venus comes across quite well in the interview portion. Yet despite considerable discussion of the media, there’s virtually no acknowledgement the family might have influenced its negative coverage in any way, as in Serena’s recent flap with rival player Maria Sharapova.
“Venus Vs.” will be followed the next week by “Pat XO,” a fairly straightforward tribute to Pat Summitt, NCAA basketball’s winningest coach, mentor of the Tennessee’s women’s team. The whole “Nine for IX” collection will be available as a DVD set in the fall.
Credit ESPN for using its genre-defining role in sports television to champion longform filmmaking and journalism, as well as more ambitious multitiered projects such as “Nine for IX.” That said, while “Venus Vs.” is certainly worthwhile, there are enough faults to prevent it from completely acing the viewing test.