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Celebrity docuseries are usually fluff. Not HBO’s ‘Being Serena.’

A life-threatening post-delivery scare gives series on Williams a far more serious tone

Whenever a celebrity agrees to a documentary, there’s always a question about how much we’re actually going to learn about the person. Answer: only what they want you to know.

These shows tend to fall along a spectrum. There are the VH1 or Lifetime series that are full of folks hoping to launch themselves off the B- or C-lists into actual celebrity. There are the series that pretend to be serious, even though they know good and well they’re not, such as Mariah Carey’s 2016-17 E! concert series, Mariah’s World. And then there’s Being Serena, HBO’s new docuseries following Serena Williams through the beginning of her pregnancy, childbirth and her postnatal return to professional tennis, which begins airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST. It is a celebrity docuseries, yes, but one with the imprimatur of HBO Sports.

The higher the profile of the subject, and the more involved the person is in the project, the more these films tend to be pretty exercises in hagiography. That doesn’t mean they’re without value, just that you shouldn’t expect to see truly unflattering bits. It’s why the most insightful documentaries about famous people usually don’t come until after they’re dead.

That said, Being Serena ends up offering more insight than most, given the athlete’s harrowing hospital experience after the birth of her daughter with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Williams became a high-profile example of a problem affecting black mothers all over the country. Last year, ProPublica and NPR published a series examining high rates of maternal mortality in American women (it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist). One chapter was especially disturbing. “Nothing protects black women from dying in pregnancy and childbirth. Not education. Not income. Not even being an expert on racial disparities in health care,” the organizations reported.

Williams had blood clots in her lungs (known as pulmonary embolisms) and had to advocate for herself, asking for a CT scan with contrast to find them after first asking for an oxygen mask because she could not breathe. She knew what to ask for because Williams has a history with blood clots and she knew what an embolism felt like. And so what began as a TV project on a world-class athlete returning to the top of her game turned into a docuseries in which the best women’s tennis player ever confronted her own mortality.

“I almost died,” Williams says in the series. She wrote about the experience in an op-ed for CNN, connecting it with other, less famous, less wealthy black women.

Being Serena, executive produced by Michael Antinoro (Battle of the Network Stars, The Ashley Graham Project, Jim Rome on Showtime), can sometimes be overwrought. There’s a lot of B-roll of the camera panning through treetops. It’s got some tonal inconsistencies, which I think can be attributed to the fact that no one expected Williams’ labor and delivery experience to be so fraught. Williams had planned for a vaginal delivery but had an emergency cesarean section because her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., was in distress.

What began as a TV project on a world-class athlete returning to the top of her game turned into a series in which the best women’s tennis player ever confronted her own mortality.

HBO provided the first two episodes for review, and they offer a glimpse into Williams and Ohanian’s relationship — they’re complete opposites, Williams says. There are tender moments of Richard Williams, Serena’s father, meeting his granddaughter for the first time. And we see Williams trying on wedding dresses and she and Ohanian installing her Australian Open trophy (the one she won while pregnant) in Olympia’s nursery. (The nursery is tricked out with a gorgeous rose gold crib, and I admit I found myself yelling at the TV, “No! Crib bumpers are dangerous! Get rid of those!”)

By the end of the second episode, Williams is out of bed and hitting balls on the tennis court. It’s an abrupt shift from watching her struggle to carry Olympia in her car seat across the driveway to her house. But Williams, by and large, is open about the fact that even for someone as healthy and fit as she is, childbirth can be dangerous and scary. It’s certainly a contradiction to the studied peacefulness of her Instagram feed from that time. Williams is mostly bedridden and in pain for six weeks after delivery, waiting for her C-section scar to heal and for the removal of a filter that doctors put in her body to prevent blood clots from reaching her heart.

When she finally does begin hitting again, she’s honest about the pain she’s feeling because her joints have expanded as part of pregnancy. She argues against current WTA rules that treat pregnant women like players returning from injury when it comes to determining tournament seeding. The current rules, she says, discourage women from having children during their playing years. That’s likely to become an issue if more women attain the career longevity that Williams, 36, has managed.

Being Serena has some unforced errors, sure, but its value lies in what it reveals to be a woman and a professional athlete right now. Williams is tender and nurturing, but she’s more than retained her competitive spirit. She’s unapologetic in her ambition, and for a country that still struggles to accept that in women, it’s a welcome contribution to the television landscape.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.