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Gina Prince-Bythewood on Serena Williams: ‘She Never Had a Level Playing Field’

"Every time I watch her play, every time I think about her story," the director says, "it inspires me as Black woman and as a filmmaker"
Photo Credit: Paola Kudacki/Trunk Archive

F OR ROLLING STONE’S third annual Icons & Influences feature, we asked eight of our favorite artists and entertainers to pay tribute to the women who have inspired them, in life as well as in their careers. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who’s helmed iconic films from 2000’s Love & Basketball to last year’s all-female action hit The Woman King, talks about how she’s found motivation in Serena Williams swagger and grit.

The first time I heard of Serena Williams, I was getting ready for my directorial debut, Love & Basketball. We were thinking outside the box when casting for the role of the main character, Monica, and she was one of the names that we talked about: “What about Serena? Can Serena act? Could she possibly play this character?” She was focused on her career, as she should have been, and couldn’t do it, but the fact that I was thinking about her that early, from the very beginning of my career, shows how much I look up to her.

I’m someone who is enamored by greatness, so Serena Williams represents so much for me. I was an athlete growing up, and Serena’s mentality absolutely influenced me as a director. She has so much swagger and confidence — like when she was slammed for saying she wanted to be Number One in the world and refused to back down. Even when her back is against the wall, I have seen her pull something from deep within herself countless times and come through with the win. Every time I watch her play, every time I think about her story, it inspires me as Black woman and as a filmmaker.

I’ve never met Serena, and that’s got to change. But I have seen her play in person. I attended a match at UCLA a long time ago. At the end of her matches, she usually signs a tennis ball and hits it into the crowd. That time, she smashed the ball toward me. And thank God I was an athlete, because that was a hard catch. I think I reached over a kid to grab it. I still have the tennis ball. It’s displayed in a place of honor in our living room.

No one can deny what Serena Williams has been through. You can’t say that her path was easy, or even that it was equal to her peers. She had to break through the legacy of racism in her sport. She never had a level playing field, so you can’t deny it when you see her excel. What’s so pervasive about racism is that Serena never got to just be a tennis player. She had to train, and work out, and be a great tennis player all while dealing with microaggressions and the weight of the world looking at her. I wish I could say it’s inspiring; that part is heartbreaking. But it’s something to be applauded and championed.

As a Black woman, I’m especially in awe of Serena’s mental toughness. The constant fight takes a mental toll. And what’s happened with Serena is what strong, powerful Black women go through in every single industry. There’s so much we have to overcome, and we’re still never allowed to acknowledge when we’re great. So I walk on set the way she used to walk on the court — in full belief in my abilities. As a Black woman, that’s a confidence you have to have in this industry. We have to con stantly prove ourselves, prove our space, prove our talent, and prove that we deserve to be there over and over again. And you will rarely get validation for your work. So you have to keep that stamina to stay in the fight. This industry is not for the faint of heart. And it will break you if you let it.

Now that Serena is retired, my hope is that we give her grace in allowing her to find out what the next chapter looks like for her. She’s been so iconic for so many years, and has not only completely changed the sport, but has changed how we think about female athletes altogether. She’s earned the right to do nothing for the rest of her life. But I don’t think that’s happening. So I’m just eager to see what she chooses to do next. I know it’s going to be something special.