In 2015, at a lunch celebrating her designation as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, Serena Williams made a speech in which she acknowledged the criticism she’s faced during her extraordinary 21-year career. “I’ve had people look down on me, put me down because I didn’t look like them—I look stronger,” she said. “I’ve had people look past me because of the color of my skin, I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman.” She concluded by quoting Maya Angelou: “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.”
The speech makes up the final scene of Serena, a documentary airing on Epix Wednesday night, and it’s a powerful summation of Williams’s determination to win, as well as her significance as an icon. At this point in history, with 21 Grand Slam wins, four Olympic gold medals, and more major singles, doubles, and mixed-doubles titles than any other tennis player in history, Williams has cemented her place in history as one of the greatest athletes of all time. But what makes Serena so compelling is the ways in which it captures the private reality of Williams’s success. Over the course of more than a year in 2015, the filmmaker Ryan White followed Williams on her quest to win all four Grand Slam titles at the age of 33, and his portrait of her behind-the-scenes struggles offers texture to the typical Hallmark-inspirational narrative of greatness, and some sense of what it actually costs to achieve it.