How that changed is the subject of DuVernay’s new documentary “Venus Vs.” which debuts Tuesday night on ESPN. The film tells the little-known story of how Venus Williams took on the All England Club and basically shamed the old boys into awarding the female tennis players the same payouts as their male counterpoints. The film, screened Monday at the E Street Cinema, is part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series — nine films by nine female directors celebrating the 40th (now 41st) anniversary of the landmark Title IX decision.
The sports network approached DuVernay, winner of the Best Director award last year at Sundance for her film “Middle of Nowhere,” to make a film about any topic in women’s sports. She choose Williams’ fight for equal pay at Wimbledon — a big story in Britain, but not widely known in the United States.
“It was like a dream come true,” she told us. “Most filmmakers don’t get that question very often — especially independent filmmakers like myself.” Like Williams, DuVernay is from Compton and “always had an affection and affinity for her.” She was drawn to the idea of a champion — off the court and on, the growth of the girl to a women, an outsider to the ultimate insider of a sport — and the quest of an African-American woman for equal pay. “Those are all the things as a storyteller that galvanized my attention.”
The film follows Williams as a child phenom to her first championship at Wimbledon in 2000 — and again in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008. (She’s sitting out this year due to a back injury.) Endorsement deals made her one of the most powerful athletes in the world — but not worthy of equal pay at arguably the most prestigious Grand Slam event. Inspired by Billie Jean King, Williams led the charge for all the other women on the court: The women’s check and the men’s were almost the same (the difference was only a few thousand British pounds), but the battle was all about the symbolic message it sent.
On the eve of her 2005 victory, Williams made a personal appeal to the governing body. It didn’t work. The following year, she published a much buzzed-about op-ed in London’s Times and the question was raised in Parliament. This time the club finally caved: When she won her fourth Wimbledon championship in 2007, Williams became the first woman to earn exactly the same as Roger Federer: $1.4 million.
For the film, DuVernay traveled to Wimbledon last year with Williams and interviewed many of the major tennis players and officials in the quest for equal pay — but still, more than 75 tennis former and current stars declined to talk about the still controversial topic. “I think you have to speak truth to power,” said the filmmaker. “If truth is not being spoken, then power doesn’t shift.”