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'King Richard,' the Oscar-nominated film, authentically depicts the Williams' history

The cast of King Richard at the Los Angeles Premiere AFI Fest 2021 (L-R: Demi Singleton, Serena Williams, Will Smith, Venus Williams, Saniyya Sidney, Aunjanue Ellis).
Eric Charbonneau
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Warner Bros. Entertainment
The cast of King Richard at the Los Angeles Premiere AFI Fest 2021 (L-R: Demi Singleton, Serena Williams, Will Smith, Venus Williams, Saniyya Sidney, Aunjanue Ellis).

King Richard is up for Best Picture and five other categories at this year's Academy Awards. It's the story of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams and their family. To give their stamp of approval to the production, Isha Price, one of the three older sisters, was on set every day to make sure the filmmakers told their story authentically.

"We've been approached different times about doing a movie, and it never seemed to be right because the story's still being written," Price says. "This script was different."

Price says her family appreciated how the film is really Venus Williams' origin story, before she won seven Grand Slam singles titles, five Wimbledon championships and four Olympic gold medals. And long before her little sister Serena won 23 Grand Slam singles titles of her own, seven Wimbledon championships and four Olympic gold medals.

"Serena is hands down the GOAT, she's the best has ever done it," says Price. "But even she said historically that that doesn't happen without Venus, that there had to be somebody to bust that door open."

It was Richard Williams who planned for his daughters to become tennis royals even before they were born.

"The size and scope of the dream was so huge that it it bordered on insanity," says Will Smith, who's nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for playing Williams." It's sort of where you have to live if you want to do something that's never been done before."

Aunjanue Ellis is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for portraying Oracene Price, the queen to king Richard. Ellis says they shared the vision. "They were like, 'Let's create tennis champions. Mr. Richard was the architect of the dream and Mrs. Price was the builder of that dream.'"

The film opens in the late 1980's, early 1990's when the family lived in Compton. Venus and Serena practiced in battered tennis courts while their dad worked the night shift as a security guard, and reigned over his family with love, humor and determination.

"Have some fun out there," he would tell him daughters on the tennis courts. "That's what this is about."

Williams was their coach before moving the family to Florida for professional training. He made waves for his audacious business plans and for taking the girls out of stressful tennis competitions so they could be kids.

"This is a man who was battered and maligned in the press," Smith notes. "And in retrospect, if you look at it, it was only because he was trying to protect his daughters."

In one scene, Williams confronts police officers called to their house by a nosy neighbor who wanted them to check on the five daughters.

"We got future doctors, lawyers, plus a couple tennis stars in this house," he tells them. "What you not gonna never do is come knock on this door, talking about you have to blow they damn brains out in them streets 'cause they runnin' with hoodlums and doing drugs and things. That's what you not never gonna never see in this house."

Later, Williams encourages Venus to take her tennis further, when she says she's ready. " You not gonna just be representing you," he tells her, "You gonna be representing every little Black girl on Earth."

Smith, one of the film's producers, says he got into character by speaking and dressing like Richard Williams.

"The equivalent of his crown was those short shorts," Smith chuckles. "Yeah, it sounds like a joke, but when I put those short shorts on, I really felt into Richard Williams. I understood, oh, wait a second, he thinks he's fly. And I realize, oh, he has an image in his mind of what the tennis parent mogul looks like."

Meanwhile, Oracene quietly worked as a nurse to support the family. Ellis says the matriarch coached Serena behind the scenes.

"Now people will know the truth of that," she says. "I do think the triumph of King Richard is that you get to see a reflection of this beautiful Black family."

Oracene Price quietly worked as a nurse to support her family. She also coached Serena behind the scenes.
/ Warner Bros. Entertainment
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Warner Bros. Entertainment
Oracene Price quietly worked as a nurse to support her family. She also coached Serena behind the scenes.

It was important to the Williams family and Director Reinaldo Marcus Green that the film also get the tennis moves correctly, demonstrating Venus and Serena's powerful lobs and open stance plays. "But I was less interested in making a tennis movie," Green says, "This was a movie about a family that had tennis in it."

Green says their stories were familiar to him, having grown up in a rough New York neighborhood playing baseball, and being coached by his dad. "My father wore those short shorts and I understood how a Black man with a big personality could be misunderstood for being outspoken." He says he too, "had a father that raised us with love."

To write the screenplay, Zach Baylin referenced anecdotes from Richard Williams' memoir, and books by Serena Williams and coach Rick Macci. Baylin and the producers also interviewed Oracene Price.

"She read the script and said that was what was most important for her was that we didn't make her look like a chump," says Baylin. "She can be a very soft-spoken person, but when she does choose to speak, she's very intentional and very strong and pointed, and she wanted that to come across."

Just before the film shoot wrapped, Isha Price, Venus and Serena Williams officially signed on as executive producers. Will Smith says their support meant the world.

"They called me directly after they saw it and Venus said 'thank you for telling the world truth about our daddy.'"

But Smith says he's still dying to know Richard Williams' reaction. "Serena was like, 'He says he hasn't seen it yet. We've been trying to get him to watch. And she said 'it's not beyond daddy to have watched it and don't tell us.'"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 20, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Aunjanue Ellis has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
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