She was the first women’s tennis player who was born a man. This is her story.
Dir. Eric Drath, 2011, 79 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
Renée exemplifies purely competent documentary filmmaking. I probably won’t ever feel the urge to watch it again, but it’s a good movie about a story worth telling and hearing. Director Eric Drath does nothing extraordinary, but he tells Renée Richard’s story well, and manages to hit a few emotional buttons along the way.
We love trailblazers. I think Americans in particular seem to have an obsession with “firsts.” Just look at all the jingoistic crowing over the Curiosity rover landing on Mars this week* (which is extra odd, given that there have already been probes on Mars). It makes some sense. After all, a first is the opening up of a whole slew of possibilities. Throughout history, various firsts demarcate the line between boring times and exciting times. What previously seemed impossible becomes quite possible. And to tear down that barrier makes for nice bragging rights.
Renée Richards was the first transwoman to compete in women’s professional tennis, playing from 1977 to 1981. The United States Tennis Association had previously barred her from playing by instituting an unheard-of chromosomal test requirement. Some players refused to play against her, whether out of transphobia or the assumption that she had a biological advantage over them. The film follows Richards from when she was Richard Raskind, a total man’s-man who nonetheless found something he didn’t understand stirring within him. He eventually underwent sexual reassignment surgery, but still felt a burning urge to play sports. And thus was a controversy born.
The movie examines the effects that the Richard-Renée transition had on her personal as well as her competitive life. She has an odd relationship with her sister, who still stubbornly refers to her as a “he” while otherwise acting normally with her. I suppose she exemplifies the idea of “tolerance without acceptance,” although I’m not sure how healthy that is. I only know them from this brief time, though, so who am I to judge? Things are even more strained between Renée and her son, who is, frankly, a complete and total douchebag. The scenes between the two of them are the most affecting in the film.
Drath’s approach is generally vanilla standard, but the material speaks pretty well for itself. Renée is likable and eminently root-forable (I feel like I’ve used that phrase before, but I like it), and there’s not really much twistiness in her story that warrants anything more than a straightforward telling of it. Inspiring and pleasant, Renée is ephemeral but nice.
*Although yeah, that’s awesome.