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L.A. Film Festival: 'Venus Vs.' filmmaker on tennis star-activist

ActivismFilm FestivalsMoviesVenus Williams

This post has been updated. See bottom for details.

Most people know Venus Williams for her ferocious backhand and overall power on the tennis court, but the 33-year-old athlete has also been an effective activist, specifically when it comes to the issue of prize-money pay equality.

Following in the footsteps of tennis legend Billie Jean King, who in 1973 pressured the U.S. Open to pay women athletes the same prize money as their male counterparts, Williams and Women's Tennis Assn. then-president Larry Scott persuaded Wimbledon to join the rest of the Grand Slam tournaments and pay men and women equally.

William's efforts -- which included attending a Wimbledon meeting the day before her final match and writing an opinion piece for the Times of London-- are chronicled in "Venus Vs.," Ava DuVernay's new documentary for ESPN's summer series "Nine for IX" films, which will debut July 2.

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DuVernay's 50-minute documentary will have its theatrical premiere Wednesday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival. We chatted with the publicist turned writer-director who took on the project after ESPN approached her in January 2012 after she won the director's prize for "Middle of Nowhere" at the Sundance Film Festival. (ESPN and Prada were the only two companies to approach the filmmaker for work after the win.)

Were you aware of Venus' activism prior to taking on this project?

DuVernay: I was aware of the story in a surface way but this was really a European story that didn't get covered widely here at all. I wanted to unpeel this layer of her activism and feminism that most folks didn't know about.

As a black female filmmaker who's broken her own barriers, did you feel a specific connection to Venus?

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I always felt a connection to her. We are both from Compton. There was always this feeling that she was ours in some way. Also, there is a scene in the movie that just breaks my heart. It's when she's 18, on the world's stage, and fighting over a point they want to take away because of a bead that's fallen from her hair. There are a lot of aesthetic politics, gender politics and cultural politics in that moment. I put things like that in there because I'm interested in it but I can also deconstruct that and say that I'm probably interested in that because I'm a black woman.

Was there anything about Venus that you learned that surprised you?

Her personality surprised me. In the interviews I watched of her before I did my own, I wouldn’t say she’s guarded but she has an interview mode. Someone who has been a star since they were 14, they are not really giving a lot in the interview. I really wanted to try to get something more. I was really pleased with the interview that we had. She smiles. She laughs. She makes a few little jokes. She was very relaxed and open. 

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The Williams sisters are not supporting the other documentary, "Venus and Serena," made about their lives. Did this at all affect your access to Venus?

I don't think they knew there was anything in that doc they didn't like until the spring. I knew someone else was making a documentary when I was but I just knew it was about two sisters. It didn't affect my work.

You interviewed a lot of subjects for the film: Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Maria Sharapova, Larry Scott. Who was the toughest?

McEnroe was probably the toughest. He came in grouchy. But before I even got the second question out he had turned into a total teddy bear. Totally cooperative. By the end, I was getting a bear hug. He gave me a great interview. He gave me a lot of time. I think he likes to test you, wants to make sure you can take it.

DuVernay's film will debut Wednesday night at 7:20 at L.A. Live's Regal Cinemas in downtown L.A.

An earlier version of this article said that Williams had written an opinion piece for the New York Times. It was for the Times of London.

ALSO:

CHEAT SHEET: Los Angeles Film Festival

Wimbledon writes check for equality

Ava DuVernay no longer in 'Middle of Nowhere'

Toronto: Venus and Serena Williams withdraw support for tennis doc

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