King Richard, the Greatest Coaching Story of all Time

“To have Will [Smith] play this role as my father and the way he embodied Richard Williams it just took the whole film to a whole new level. It’s so emotional, it’s well done, and it’s a brilliant piece of work.” – Serena Williams 

Never in my life have I experienced a standing ovation during the credits of a movie before attending the King Richard movie premier earlier this month at the Philadelphia Film Center. The two hour and twenty four minute runtime captivated the audience and portrayed the raw and authentic truth of the legendary William’s family from the perspective of Richard Williams. Before watching this story, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, I was unfamiliar with how all star tennis players, Venus and Serena Williams became pros and was amazed to learn that is all thanks to their fathers persistent coaching and headstrong attitude. Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney, and more well renowned actors and actresses, this movie tells the story of sport, chasing dreams, and family.

Having taken on roles of real life people in past movies, Will Smith fought hard to tell this specific story of fatherhood. Richard Williams suffered strong opinions by people who claimed him of being too hard on his soon to be tennis champions. From the perspective of Venus and Serena themselves they do not look at their father in that light, similar to Smith himself. Smith mentioned that after watching a live interview of 13 year old Venus where Richard goes off on the reporter, “the look on Venus’ face burned in my heart because that’s how I wanted my daughter to look when I showed up and that interview really changed my parenting at that time and watching Venus’ face it was like she had a lion and she was so confident and so comfortable that her lion wasn’t going to have anything happen to her and I knew I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.” Later in the interview Smith went onto saying which ways his parenting is similar and different to Richard’s parenting. Smith brought up one of the firsts conversations he had with Serena and Venus where they mentioned their punishment growing up was not being able to play tennis. Smith mentioned that as an actor he looks to explore and learn something, where he discovered this new parenting idea of aligning your child instead of directing. Smith added, “There was this jeteye mind trick, that it wasn’t the standard thing you see of a parent pushing a child. There was that, but it was augmenting and throwing fuel on the fire that they had, inside Venus and Serena.”

Producers of the film, Tim and Trevor White began talking about telling this story through the lens of Richard Williams between the years of 2013 and 2014. Tim included in the interview, “we’re both inspired by the family’s relentless pursuit of this dream and after meeting with writers what we found out was there were a thousand different ways to tell this story and bring it to life.” Trevor picked up where Tim left off mentioning, “doing a film about Richard Williams we thought about it in terms that this could be the greatest coaching story in the history of sports and what made it exciting is when we started to dive into their story, it was far beyond a coaching story it was a story about a family and love and how that keeps the drive alive.” 

Each scene moves seamlessly into the next, giving focus on the Williams family on and off the tennis court. Zach Baylin, who wrote the screenplay mentioned the effort he wanted to show through his writing, “it was gonna be a gripping family story, it wasn’t gonna just be a sports centered package about these moments that we all know and finding the little things that make it not just be about a family that did this, but this family that did this.” Baylin went on to say how he spoke with the Williams family about specific details regarding what it was like in the van, the kitchen table, and so on to bring this story to life.

Commonly found in movies are parent biopics that show one parent doing more than the other. In this story Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the role of wife and mother, Brandi Williams brings the importance of working as a team. “They [screen writers] insisted that she would not be left in the shadows, and we have stories where we have a heroic male figure, but to do something where we do not see her as a coconspiracer for this crazy dream would have been dishonest and we worked to give her the presence that she deserved to have because that was the truth.  Diving deeper to tell the truth of the Williams family comes the youngest in the cast, Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney. Singleton (14) and Sidney (15) were casted to play all time tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams. Singleton who plays Serena Williams mentioned that when it came to portraying the authenticity of not only a tennis player but also a sister she emphasized on the amount of research that herself and Sidney had done to ensure that they told the truth of their characters. Looking back on meeting with their counterparts Sidney who plays Venus Williams recalls Venus and Serena, “spoke to them about everything, but tennis which was funny. We spoke on their life and childhood and the people they dated growing up. It was a cool conversation because we got to speak to them as people and get to know that side of them.” 

The young actresses went on to mention how much they have learned while working on set with the Williams sisters as well as cast and crew and what they took from it once they wrapped. Being Singleton’s first major film, one of her favorite memories from this was being on set and working with such talented actors and actresses that she learned a lot from just by watching off set. Feeling emotional, Sidney picked up where Singleton left off saying, “being able to step into Venus’ shoes helped me grow as a young woman. They were so humble at such a young age and they had such a great father and, again, family is everything.” The talents of these young actresses amazed not only myself watching this in theatres with how effortlessly they portray their characters, but their cast and crew as well. Aunjanue Ellis looks back on working with them on set and says they made it look easy. “They look like I’m just having a good time with Will Smith today, but that’s the deception of their genius because everybody can not live in an experience like that on camera and be present in every moment.” Ellis continued her gratitude towards Will Smith who made everyone on set feel included and loved. As well as sharing gratitude for the director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, for being the biggest cheerleader and giving her this opportunity. Behold to myself until Smith mentioned it, but other than Singleton and Sidney learning how to embody these iconic tennis players, they had to also learn how to play tennis. Even more so, Sidney who is left handed had to learn to swing a tennis racket with her off hand. 

Outside of Serena and Venus Williams none of the other actors’ real life counterparts were on set while filming. Tony Goldwyn who plays the role of Tennis Coach, Paul Owen mentioned how he got to have long conversations with the real Paul Owen and ask him questions about his relationship with the Williams family as a whole, individually, and how he went about coaching young athletes. Looking back on Goldwyn’s time on set he mentioned his first day watching this ‘family,’ “it was like there was some kind of magnet, that anytime the camera turned off they were just together and a lump of playful joy, all the girls, and it was like this is easy because this is a family and Aunjanue [Ellis] and Will [Smith] just apart of that. It was almost seamless between [Ellis and Smith] when they were in front of the camera or they were not, it was just all real.” 

Isha Price, Venus and Serena’s sister mentioned that it was a journey bringing this all together, but with the persistence of wanting to tell a story of their dad without defamation but rather understanding who their father was and his mission it was a more comfortable decision agreeing to this project. After she read the first script she told the rest of the Williams family, “there’s this script, it’s a little raw and some things we can probably finesse and get right, but this person [Trevor and Tim White] is behind it and we have a lot of respect for Will [Smith] and he wants to get it right, won’t do it unless we buy into the idea of what this could be.” Due to Richard Williams’ often criticism the family took some time to make a decision before ultimately trusting that these writers and producers will do it right and portray their fathers heroic side as well as their mothers foundation and heart. Price praised Ellis for how perfect she nailed her mother’s voice and presence, along with the other actors’ portrayals.

Before wrapping the interview Venus Williams concluded by stating that she hopes young girls take from this film, “anything is possible and to always believe in yourself, never doubt. Doubt does nothing for you and the same time you do doubting is the same time you can spend believing in you and putting the work in so that way you will build confidence. And as a family you can achieve anything and that’s what I really loved about this is it’s a family film and like Will [Smith] said if you don’t understand tennis you understand family and that with a family you can do anything.” Serena agreed with what Venus’ hoped young girls would take from watching this film and added, “the sky is literally the limit, so don’t be afraid to set high goals.” 

Coming to theatres and available to stream on HBO Max November 19th, 2021.

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