“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
NEW YORK—Serena Williams pulls her gold medals out of a ziplock bag in her room. She shows her ‘Bejing Bling’ and the rest of the gold medals clink into each other. She puts them away. This is the Serena. The intense, aggressive woman we perceive her to be from the media, is quite separate from the relaxed, goofy person she is off the court. All her success could lead someone to expect her medals displayed, manicured and aligned. Yet, that wouldn’t be Serena.
In Ryan White’s Serena, which premiered in New York City Monday night at SVA Theatre, he captures the multitude of Serena – through her highs, but also her deep lows. In 2015 Williams was after a calendar Grand Slam and a record-breaking 22 titles.
“Pressure is a privilege,” rang as the thesis of the film—a saying that champion Billie Jean King has told to Williams. Williams leans over the sink while hot towels drape over her shoulders and her head—she has no choice but to sweat until the flu drips from her body.
“Yeah I like this pressure,” Williams said Monday night, after the documentary premiere. “But every day I wake up, every morning I wake up and I’m supposed to win.”
Williams handles pressure on the court by channeling it and letting it out in cries and force in her hits—and she handles it off the court by not thinking about tennis at all.
Serena juxtaposes the devotion of remaining a champion each day with her cuddled up in bed with stuffed animals and The Little Mermaid playing on her laptop. Her life is modest—filled with friends and family always as the priority. In one scene just after winning her 20th Grand Slam in Paris she celebrates with take-out Chinese food in the company of her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, agent Jill Smoller and others. While winning is something that never leaves Williams’ mind—her message is much beyond just being a champion.
Williams has been critiqued for being “too muscular” for the sport of tennis and even “too aggressive.” She admits to struggling with her body image when she was younger because she didn’t fit the mold of the white-cookie-cutter type. Now, she sits before hundreds of people and proudly says, “I love my physique.”
Williams’ message is heard by all – in one moment during the film she and the limo driver are having a conversation about 9/11 and how now, years later the same chills are felt. Once she leaves the limo, White spends some time speaking with the driver. He opens up about his awe and respect he has for Serena—at that moment it becomes clear just how expansive her impact is.
Williams doesn’t win the U.S. Open. Pressure is a privilege, but sometimes—it can’t possibly feel that way. After her loss, she doesn’t face her friends, she doesn’t face her family and she doesn’t face her coach.
Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou is one of Williams’ favorite poems and in conclusion of the film, she recites it. In conjunction with the poem, the final scene is her being awarded Sportsperson of the Year—a testament to, ‘like dust, SHE’LL rise.’