Serena and Venus Williams on 'King Richard': 'It's a brilliant piece of work'

The film tells the story of the tennis superstars' father, who is played by Will Smith

A scene from the film 'King Richard'. From left, Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene “Brandi” Williams, Mikayla Bartholomew as Tunde Price, Will Smith as Richard Williams, Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams, Demi Singleton as Serena Williams and Danielle Lawson as Isha Price. Warner Bros via AP
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Serena and Venus Williams are tennis greats who need no introduction. However, their latest ace may surprise many, as they have ventured into film producing, serving up King Richard, a movie starring Will Smith as the grand-slam-winning sisters' father, Richard Williams.

Smith delivers one of his best performances. He portrays a man with a dream, a father who decides to raise his two youngest daughters to be tennis superstars. So sure is Richard of this that he wrote a 78-page plan about how it would happen before the girls were born.

Yet it takes a particular type of character to be so confident, and the film doesn't hide from the fact that Richard could be single-minded to a fault. His stubbornness gets him beaten up by thugs in Compton, the notorious neighbourhood in Los Angeles where his family lived, but through his tenacity, he also manages to persuade a tennis coach to move the family to Florida.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard depicts the real Richard with all his nuance.

Entertaining scenes detail how, in the '90s, Richard refused to listen to the advice of the world's top tennis coaches that Venus should play the junior tennis circuit. Instead, he insisted that the girls be allowed to be children, get a high-class education and then hit tennis balls over the net come rain or shine.

The film's wow factor is its incredible and realistic tennis scenes. A lot of that is down to the performances of Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena. But it wasn't only the tennis skills that impressed Venus when she visited the film set.

"It was amazing to see the family atmosphere on set and how much Demi and Saniyya acted as Serena and I did," she says. "When the cameras weren't rolling, they were holding hands, and it was so sweet. They understood our family and portrayed us in a way that was really us."

For Serena, watching the film on the big screen was "surreal". Seeing actresses play versions of her and her sister in a movie made her pinch herself and ask, "Are we really something?"

"And then the way Will embodies my father just took the whole film to a whole new level," Serena says. "It's so emotional, it's well done, and it's a brilliant piece of work."

The enthusiasm the tennis stars have shown for this project is markedly different to the disdain they had for Maiken Baird and Michelle Major's documentary Venus and Serena.

They let the filmmakers follow them behind the scenes, but when they saw the final cut, they pulled out of attending its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 because they were angered by how it depicted their father.

King Richard, however, shows another side, revealing that the tennis world didn't like that Richard wasn't playing by its established rules. The press bought into the idea that Richard was difficult because he didn't do things in the traditional way.

Race and the way black men have been stereotyped by western media also played a part in this portrayal of him. King Richard changes the script by showing that Richard could be difficult and stubborn, but that his first thought was always to protect his daughters. And that stance has proven him right, with Serena winning more grand slams than any other modern tennis player.

Smith has been a fan of Richard for decades, so it's no surprise he wanted to play him so much. "There was an interview that Venus was doing [aged 13 or 14]," Smith said. "It’s a famous interview where Richard Williams snaps on the reporter [for questioning Venus's answers]." The interview is recreated in the film.

"I saw that in real-time, and the look on Venus's face, that image 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. It was like she had a lion, and she was so confident and comfortable that her lion wasn't going to let anything happen to her."

In the film, Green also makes sure to show that "King Richard" would be nothing without his queen, Oracene "Brandy" Williams. Aunjanue Ellis (Lovecraft County) portrays her as a survivor, a fighter and protector. She will do anything for her girls, even putting up with some of the excesses of her husband.

"I wanted to make a movie that my mum could see," says Green. "She's never seen a tennis match before. She understands what winning and losing is. She understands what love is and struggle. So I wanted to make things relatable to my mother, so she could watch it, understand it and not get lost in the technical aspects of the sport."

The result is that King Richard isn't simply a movie about the sweat needed to become tennis celebrities, but one with a more universal theme. It’s about how strong the family unit is when it pulls together, making the impossible possible.

King Richard is in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, November 18

Updated: November 21, 2021, 5:58 AM