Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s KING RICHARD is like a Trojan Horse for sports films. It contains all the rousing, infectiously crowd-pleasing triumphs and tribulations audiences have come to expect from the dramatic subgenre. Yet it’s also a tribute to the love, sacrifice and dedication of one very special family. While its titular identity lies with Richard Williams (Will Smith, in career best form), it’s equally about his two young daughters – Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton)– who went on to become world champions in the world of tennis.
Smith was eager to bring this story to the screen after seeing a TV interview with Venus Williams two decades prior.
“There was an interview where Richard Williams snaps on the reporter, ‘Now she done say what she said with a whole lot of confidence.’ I saw that in real time and the look on Venus’ face burned in my heart because that’s how I wanted my daughter to look when I showed up. That interview really changed my parenting at that time. She had a lion and was so comfortable and confident that her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.”
It was then when he connected with her father’s protective instinct.
“I fell in love with Richard Williams like 20-something years ago and when the opportunity to be a part of this came up that was the first thing I remembered. I knew I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.”
While this film is centered on Richard’s struggles, he’s not always the primary focus. This approach to the narrative’s framing took a while to mold.
Producers Tim and Trevor White on the choice to focus on the dad not the sisters – a different framing. Tim says,
“Around 2013, or 2014, Trevor and I started to talk about this as a potential idea as a movie through Richard. We’re both incredibly inspired by the family’s relentless pursuit of this dream. We started to meet with writers and, for a couple of years, we probably met with 30 writers and what we found out was really that there’s a thousand different ways to tell this story. It wasn’t until we met Zach who really zeroed in on exactly what this was, wrote an amazing script for it. It was that script that started the process of this film becoming real. We sent it to Will and to [producer and Williams sister] Isha Price. [It was] at that point [where we] really began to bring this to life.”
“When Tim first brought me the idea of doing a film about Richard Williams, we thought about it in terms of it being one of the greatest coaching stories in the history of sports. And what made it exciting when we started to dive into their story, it was far beyond a coaching story. It was a story about a family and about love and how that keeps the drive alive. It was very inspiring for us. Once Zach came in, we really felt there’s the shape to a movie. We can now finally see what this movie could look like.”
Screenwriter Zach Baylin says that balancing the film’s epic and intimate moments was part of the exciting challenge when crafting the story.
“That was the big effort that it was going to be a gripping family story. It wasn’t gonna be like a Sportscenter package about these moments we all know that have become calcified. If we were really going to get to know the family, we needed the intimate moments. We collectively found what the architecture was where the movie was going, but then it became about digging in and doing the research and finding the little things where it wasn’t going to be about a family that did this, but this family that did this. I wrote the first draft and once we sat down with Venus, Isha and Oracene [Williams] to get everyone’s [take on] what was it like in that bedroom, or the dinner table, or in the van with Richard. Hopefully, that’s what brought it to life. It wasn’t just a chronicling of the greatest hits of this incredible family, but it was an inside look at every moment.”
In addition to Richard being the Williams family’s fulcrum, matriarch Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams was just as much as an integral force. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the family’s guiding light, credits the filmmakers for gifting her with a dynamic portrait.
“They insisted that Ms. Oracene would not be in the shadows. We have these stories where you have the heroic male figure. But to do something where we did not see that Ms. Oracene was a co-conspirator of this crazy dream would’ve been dishonest. We worked on that and tried to give her the presence she deserved to have. That was the truth.”
Smith values crafting a true creative partnership on screen with Ellis.
“With Aunjanue, the scene in the kitchen, we didn’t really find that until the day before. She was so confident. I just loved that push and being able to serve that – part of creating in that way and that tenacity for the authenticity.”
Sidney and Singleton wanted to make sure they were playing their real life avatars authentically. In order to do so, both actresses plunged into research. Singleton says,
“It was really important to us that everything we did was real, because this is not our story. This is theirs [motions to Venus and Serena Williams]. We had Ms. Isha there every step of the way.”
Singleton’s first conversation with Serena was incredibly enlightening.
“The first time I got to speak with her and Venus was on set. That was such a fun day. They spoke to us about everything but tennis, which was actually kind of funny. We spoke about their life and childhood and about the people that they dated growing up.”
“We had such great conversations that were never just about tennis. It was about them as people. I’ve looked up to them ever since I was little. It was very important for me to let people know how big of a heart Venus has. That was so special to me. It makes me emotional. Getting to create this family, not just with my cast, but with everyone behind the camera, they made us feel comfortable. I was excited to try tennis and was quite nervous, but it was great.”
Venus Williams says that even though they didn’t train their cinematic counterparts themselves, the ladies had help from a familiar friend and that provided an extra dash of authenticity.
“One of the coaches was someone we went to the Rick Macci Academy with. It was such a small world that ended up happening that way. In part of getting the girls connected to their roles, we were working with someone we already knew.”
Green wanted to make sure that the tennis sequences weren’t bogged down with the technical aspects of the sport, but rather were driven by emotion.
“I wanted to make a movie that my mom could see. She’s never seen a tennis match before, but she understands what winning and losing is. She understands what love is and understands what struggle is. There were things that were relatable to folks like my mother who could see this movie and enjoy it and still understand what’s happening and not get lost in the technical aspects of the sport.
When we were building the tennis [matches] that’s something we really honed in on. What aspects do we need to tell this story, whether that was talking about what open stance – what Venus and Serena use to revolutionize the game of tennis. Let’s be specific about that and use that to shape those tennis sequences.”
Smith was impressed by Sidney and Singleton’s work ethic, athleticism and skill.
“Saniyya and Demi had to learn how to play tennis like two of the greatest tennis players of all time. When I had to learn how to play Mohamed Ali, I know how daunting that was. There are professional fighters who can’t move and play like Mohamed Ali. There are professional tennis players that can’t play like Venus and Serena. Not only did Saniyya learn how to play like Venus, Saniyya is left handed. She learned how to play with her off-hand, like one of the greatest tennis players of all time. It was such a beautiful thing to watch.”
Venus and Serena loved seeing their family’s journey portrayed lovingly and respectfully on screen. Venus says she cherishes seeing the little moments on set take form.
“It’s super emotional. Every time I watch it, my eyes are watering. It’s amazing to see the family atmosphere on the set. It’s amazing to see how much Demi and Saniyya acted like Serena and I even when the cameras weren’t rolling, like holding hands. It’s pretty surreal, to be honest. They really understood our family and portrayed us in a way that was us and I was very proud of that.”
Serena calls the experience “surreal.”
“No word describes it better. Just to see these incredible actresses and everyone behind it putting this all together about our dad’s journey and because of myself and my sister, it really is like ‘Wow. Really?! Are we something?’ And to have Will play my father and the way he embodied Richard Williams, it just took the film to a whole new level. It’s so emotional.”
KING RICHARD opens on November 19 in theaters and HBOMax.