“Four hours I was feeling like I was going to throw up, man,” said the film’s writer, David Oyelowo, with a rueful laugh. He was no doubt referring to the filming of an extraordinary scene, depicted at the start of the feature, where the film’s titular tennis stars, Serena Williams and Venus Williams, wait in her car while waiting for a police escort from the stadium after a match at the Australian Open.
The encounter is an invitation to a scene that could have been lifted from a John Woo movie or one of Charlie Chaplin’s silent gems. But this was the real world and Williams and her sisters Venus and their father, Richard, are on the witness stand testifying about a racially motivated rape in Compton in 1997.
Their moving account of what happened that night serves as a catalyst for “Billionaire Boys Club,” which has mostly lived up to the $14 million of financing from the Sundance Film Festival.
The film dramatizes the tensions between Richard Williams and the police department that frequently clashed when Venus and Serena competed in Compton, the most blue-collar of the nation’s major cities, but it also dramatizes the inextricable connection between race and the sport of tennis — and the startling spectacle of the Williams sisters hitting the ball about like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in “Summer Stock.”
As they work through their frustrations with the police department, the film reprises the joys of their friendship, including the regular late-night brunches at a Venice eatery where they would hold court for 90 minutes.
“This was a nonjudgmental, passionate, wonderful family in every way,” said Oyelowo, who, when he discovered Williams’ 2009 autobiography, Venus and Serena: My Story, became convinced that it was a readymade movie. “These are people who are very empathetic and very understanding about their friends and their games and their successes and their failures. You understand the cause and effect of their friendship.”
The sisters, speaking separately over the phone from their homes in Los Angeles and Florida, said that the film had been very satisfying to them — not just because of the reflection of their relationship with the police department but also because they had been able to share some private moments with Oyelowo and director Nzingha Stewart.
“There are very specific moments where we grew up and tell stories,” Venus said. “People always speak very warmly about the funny moments we had, but rarely about the tough moments.”
“In this film, he gets that,” she added. “It also gives viewers the opportunity to see us as artists. We have amazing careers in our own right.”