In 2009, the issue of gender in sports was brought to the limelight in a most unfortunate way when a South African middle-distance runner was suspected of having a condition that would give her an advantage over other her female competitors. Public support for Semenya was overwhelming and she became a cause célèbre.
In the light of Caster Semenya’s case, Eric Drath’s documentary Renée becomes that much more relevant. The documentary follows ophtalmologist and former professional tennis player Renée Richards, who underwent sex reassignment surgery. She was propelled into the public sphere when she attempted to enter the 1976 US Open and was denied entry by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) after refusing to submit to a chromosome test to determine her female status. The film follows Richards’ life from when she was still a young Richard Raskin, an athletic boy who becomes an accomplished eye surgeon, husband, father and gifted tennis player. As Raskin’s gender struggles become to much of him, we watch his transition to Renée and the challenges that went along with her choice to re-enter professional tennis as a female.
Renée Richards, the film’s sole focus, is a fascinating person and makes for a rich subject matter for a documentary. Having defied many challenges and hardships both in public as well as in private with friends and family doubting her decision, she somehow managed to stay true to herself and live her life the way she wants to. To say that Eric Drath did Renée Richards a disservice with this documentary would be too harsh. He has done a fine job of chronicling her life through a mixture of archive footage, her own words as well as those that know her, including tennis greats such as Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe. However, apart from that, Drath hasn’t exactly created a revolutionary piece of documentary film. For the most part feeling like a fairly commonplace TV documentary, the film might have benefited from less of Drath’s narration and personal involvement in Richards’s life and more of Richards’s wonderfully candid and enlightening insights into her own life.
Credit where credit is due, however. With Renée, Drath has brought back a fascinating case from the sports world which proves to be as timely as it was during the 1970s and 80s. By creating a way for Richards to shed light on her life, he has given a fascinating person, who has sadly been somewhat forgotten, the chance to be in people’s minds again. And this time able to present herself the way she wants to be seen.