This week, The Source Magazine was invited to a New York Special Screening of ESPN Films & espnW’s “VENUS VS.” and “COACH” (Tribeca Film Festival ‘Best Documentary Short’ Award-Winner) at the Paley Center for Media.
Ava DuVernay (“Venus Vs.” Director), Whoopi Goldberg (“Coach” Executive Producer), Jane Rosenthal (Executive Producer, Nine for IX Series) and Carol Stiff (Vice President, Content Program & Integration espnW) were all in attendance.
Everyone knows what Venus Williams has accomplished on the court, but the cornerstone of her legacy lies off it. “Venus VS” is one of nine films that have been made for ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series: A film series that chronicles nine different empowering stories about women in sports, all being highlighted for the 40th anniversary of Title IX’s enactment. The film chronicles how in 2005 Williams single-handedly broke down the gender hierarchy in the sport of tennis. During the 2005 Wimbledon tournament Williams sought to force Wimbledon to pay the female champion just as much as the male winner. She lobbied British Parliament, UNESCO and Fleet Street for financial equality. She even went on to write a valiant article in the London Times detailing the antiquated practice of Wimbledon as well as the French and Australian Opens. Finally in 2007 her parade for equality secured a landmark victory when Wimbledon paid the women’s champion, ironically Williams herself, and the men’s champion Roger Federer, the same amount of prize money.
Last year ESPN teamed up with scorching new director, fresh off her Sundance 2012 Best Director victory, to create “Venus VS.” The poignant documentary takes viewers on a journey from Williams’ modest upbringing in Compton, California all the way to her historical fight and eventual win for equal pay in Tennis. One of the documentary’s more memorable moments came when a preteen Williams was asked if she thought she was going to play at the Wimbledon someday. To which the then prodigy warmly responded, “Yes.” Her foresight could not have been more spot on. Williams has become one of the sport’s most legendary talents with a resume that boasts seven Grand Slam singles titles (more than any current player aside from her sister Serena) as well as 22 overall Grand Slams. Williams was also the first African-American woman ever to be named number one in the world during the Open Era.
A second documentary that premiered Monday night was “Coach,” the story of coach C. Vivian Stringer and the 2007 incident with the Rutger’s women’s basketball team and former radio host Don Imus. After reaching the Final Four of the NCAA tournament for a consecutive year, Imus was speaking with a guest on his show “Imus in the Morning” when he referred to the Rutgers team as “nappy-headed hoes.” The incident led to a firestorm of publicity and Imus’ subsequent removal from MSNBC. The documentary not only portrays the class that Stringer responded with to the incident but also her personal struggles with the death of her husband in 1992 as well as her daughter having spinal meningitis.
A panel discussion followed both films with attendees Ava DuVernay, actress/Coach’s producer Whoopi Goldberg, and producer Jane Rosenthal. All three ladies were asked various questions about both films as well as the state of gender equality in sports overall. The highlight of the panel came when DuVernay was asked about why John McEnroe was the only male player to be interviewed for “Venus VS.” To which DuVernay responded, “We submitted over 50 interview requests to current (male) players as well as the ATP which is the men’s tour. As you can see none of them appear in the film because they all said “hell to the no.” We were refused by all the male players that we asked. A lot of very notable retired players that we asked as well. I commend McEnroe for doing it. And that’s a lot of people who didn’t do it.” The fact that it was 50 current players that denied to do an interview for the documentary is interesting because one would think that in the current times players, men and women alike, would be more pro-equality and unafraid to speak up about it. This says more about the public at large than it does about pro tennis players.
How did you get involved with the documentary?
Ava Duvernay: After I won Sundance, ESPN called and asked if there was anything I was interested in making. I pitched them the story, they said yes within two weeks and the money was in the account and we started making it.
What drew you to this project in particular?
Ava Duvernay: I’m empowered by stories of black women who are walking their own path, Venus is definitely that. This story kind of amplifies what we know about her. We know her kind of legendary swagger on the court but her activism, her feminism, her engagement with causes outside of herself is something that’s not been very well-documented. I just think it’s astounding and it’s a story that people don’t know about. I’m a tennis and Venus fan and I didn’t know about it. It was a U.K. Story! So hopefully people dig it.
Did you work with Venus at all during the film? And if so, how was it working with her?
Ava Duvernay: Yeah we shot her in the U.K. during Wimbledon 2012. I shot her on the road at a game she had in D.C. And the interview was done at her estate in Palm Beach, Florida. She’s fantastic, she’s totally open, totally kind of hands off, which is great as a filmmaker, as a documentarian. She only saw the film last week because I only finished it two weeks ago. She was great, she’s so wonderful.
The “Nine for IX” series will air “Venus VS.” July 2nd.