I personally haven’t seen much or heard much of Richard Williams at the tennis matches of what I call his “Straight Outta Compton (California)” tennis greats—Venus and Serena. I use that term because of all the popular artists and cultural finds that lead back to this Los Angeles neighborhood, I view Serena and Venus as the top echelon of global influencers coming out of that area.
However, a look at the latest film called “King Richard,” which I was able to see during a press screening beforehand, shows Will Smith, as Richard, in an Oscar-worthy role. The film will let the world know just what hard work, commitment to family and excellence and dogged determination it took to place those young girls onto the global tennis stage.
Aunjanue Ellis plays the mother of the Williams’ sisters, Oracene “Brandy” Price, who works with the Williams’ family of five girls living in the ghetto— trying to make a way with limited resources. Richard works as a security guard at night and Brandy works as a nurse through the day. They both work with Venus and Serena to get them proper equipment, and Richard has an approximately 80-page plan to get his girls to Wimbledon.
Richard was stern and often obnoxious as he ushered his girls into the dream that he had for them. And eventually it was their dream, too. He told them that the world would know them—even as he faced off gangs to use the dilapidated Compton courts. The film shows that Richard had to physically fight with younger Black men who hung around the courts. He was jockeying for his use of the court and assuring that his older girls were safe studying on the court, as he practiced with Serena and Venus. Even his female neighbor accused him of working the girls too hard.
He never backed down on his idea that Venus and Serena would be great athletes. And while I want to write this saying Serena and Venus, Venus was a bit older, and she was the chosen one—in the eyes of Richard—to be the first to shine on the courts.
The film does show the hurt that Serena often felt at being pushed to the side, but she also learned to respect her situation, as she watched her father bug/beg folks who were in the position to help the girls out with tennis equipment and coaching time. He even crashed a tennis session between John McEnroe and another player, as Richard tried to get their coach to take on Serena and Venus.
Richard had a temperament that could be gruff at times. He was justifiably upset at one country club when the top dogs at that club suggested that his girls were incredible— Richard wondered if they were using the word “incredible,” because his girls were Black. But all this was necessary to keep on track with “the plan.”
He finally struck gold when he convinced Rick Macci, played by Jon Bernthal, to coach the girls for free, brokering a deal that meant the entire family would move to Florida and be put up in a house, and their educational needs met. Richard, however, didn’t want to keep playing the junior route. He wanted Venus to go pro before what some in the field would maintain wasn’t the required amount of time and matches played than was customary.
But the Williams’ route wasn’t customary, and their road was not the same as other white tennis players who didn’t face obstacles of racism and lack of funds for proper outfits, shoes, tennis rackets, court time—a myriad of things that were road-blocks on the way to Wimbledon.
However, 14-year-old Venus bypasses this time period and after a couple of years of not competing, she dons her braids with white beads and all her athletic might and squares off against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in October of 1994. Nine months after that match, which signified Venus’ pro-playing status, she went on to sign her first endorsement contract with Reebok for $12 million over five years. And then came Serena, as well—memorializing both sisters into the sports and cultural annals as role models and victors for not only Black girls and women, but women PERIOD! the world over.
Warner Bros. describes the film as, “Based on the true story that will inspire the world.” And Will Smith reportedly said during the unveiling of the first trailer for the film: “One of the greatest honors as an actor is to be able to celebrate someone’s legacy while they’re still here creating it. I’ve gotten to do it a few times in my career playing Chris Gardner and Muhammad Ali, and every time it’s a fulfilling and expansive experience beyond compare. So now, I’m proud to show you all our first trailer for “King Richard,” the story of the man who introduced the world to Venus Williams and Serena Williams. The origin story for some REAL DEAL superheroes!!”
Smith is great as Richard, and a never-disappointing Ellis is great as the mother. Saniyya Sidney stars as the determined Venus, and Demi Singleton is the accommodating Serena. “King Richard” opens in theatres on November 19, by Warner Bros. Pictures, with a month-long simultaneous release on HBO Max streaming service.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].