Interview: ‘King Richard’ director on the family story of Venus and Serena Williams

​There were only 16 Black or multiracial tennis players, out of 128 singles players and 32 doubles pairs, in the 2020 U.S. Open. Tennis is still a “white” sport. This was truer in 1980 when Richard Williams (the father of Venus and Serena Williams) and Oracene [Price] began to coach their daughters. Armed with a 78-page plan, they strategized with coaches and managers to show the world that they really did, as Mr. Williams puts it, have “not just one, but two Michael Jordans.”

Zach Baylin has written this biopic. Reinaldo Marc Green directed the film and stars Will Smith.

After the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Mr. Green was employed on Wall Street. He then changed careers to make a career in film. Twice this year, he has worked with Will Smith, on “King Richard” and “Amend: The Fight for America,” a six-part docuseries exploring the often fatal fight for equal rights as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment.

Mr. Green previously directed three episodes of the British Netflix hit series “Top Boy,” on which rapper Drake was the executive producer. His first feature film “Monsters and Men” won the Special Jury Award for Outstanding First Feature at the Sundance Film Festival. He is now working on a series with Ed Burns, the renowned co-creator of “The Wire.” I spoke with Mr. Green, in an exclusive interview for AmericaThis is his film about which he has already received Oscar predictions. “King Richard,” a Warner Bros. PicturesFilm released in theatres across the United States Nov. 19, and simultaneously on DVD for a month. HBO Max.

This interview was edited to be more concise and clear.

“King Richard” charts the story of Richard Williams’ promise to fulfill it: His daughters would be among the greatest tennis players ever.

Zoe Ramushu: Serena and Venus are well-known in the world. But this is very much Richard’s story. Why did you feel that this was an important way of telling the story?

Reinaldo Marc Green: It was the family’s story. I was not going to be part of a movie the family wanted to make.

Richard was credited by the girls with having the idea to allow them to play tennis. Because the story is family-oriented, it felt like an interesting window into their lives. Richard has the plan, but Oracene is with him to execute it.

It’s a really interesting window into that period of time in their lives that I think will give audiences something unexpected about the Williams’s.

Richard is shown in an incredibly honest light in the film. It highlights not only his brilliance, persistence, but also his weaknesses and faults. He is a real character, much like a strict uncle who had the best intentions but was also determined that his children would succeed in life. What was your time with Richard before the film began?

Richard was a man I have never met. I do hope that one day I will.

That’s incredible! What was it like to make a film about a person who is still around? What about someone with such a huge personality?

It’s always challenging when you’re depicting real life people, and you want to honor that, but we have a runtime and there’s only so much you can fit into a film. It’s important to be open with your family about this so that we can discuss ways we can make it cinematic and take risks to make it work for you.

The family was very accommodating to that. So long as we didn’t abuse anything or say anything that was false—and that we didn’t do. We were at least coming from a place where truth was being shared. And that’s always a great foundation and a great partnership.

Every movie is a challenge. It was fun, though, as Will and the girls were there. I mean, how do you not laugh when you’re making those scenes? It’s probably what it’s like making a movie about music or a musician; we just had a lot of fun building the family and making those scenes. And [Venus and Serena Williams’s half-sisters]We were part of that: Lyndrea Price and Isha Price are both producers. I would love to see them talk: “Oh, I wouldn’t wear that” or “Oh I would wear this.” And it was just great.

This helped us to make certain scenes more nuanced. Each sister was able to define their personalities through the different colors they wore. Everyone became a character in the movie and so they weren’t just an addendum to their story. It was truly a family. And that’s what makes it—hopefully, what makes it special.

“You’re going to be representing every little Black girl on earth,” Richard tells his daughter Venus. The film alludes to various figures and moments in Black history—particularly as the parents are shown educating their daughters—and there’s a lot of gratitude and reverence for those who came before them and made it possible for them to have such opportunities. There’s a strong sense of groundedness in the Black community; also in their religion.

The sisters were raised in a way that reflected both black culture and religion. Did you find any particular moments that led to religion being a part of the story?

Well, we know that the family, Venus and Serena and Oracene, they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so we wanted to honor that. It’s who they are. Every time they win a match, they give thanks to Jehovah. So, why shy away from those things—it’s part of their faith. Now, Richard is not Jehovah but he respected the family’s decision to take them to Hall. These are the lessons we have learned, and these were the things we wanted to embrace in this film. It was crucial.

Every time the Williams sisters win a match, they give thanks to Jehovah God. So, why shy away from those things—it’s part of their faith.

Although this film is about Black excellence, you truly captured Black joy in such a touching way. There were many times that I was moved to tears, but not in the places I expected. What does this mean for Black directors?

Everything; from how my father raised us—I have an older brother—and how much love and commitment he gave to his kids to get us to where we were. Now, he thought he was raising major leaguers; it didn’t work out (laughs). But, at least, he’s raised two filmmakers. Our father was more than just about winning and losing. There is more to life than this. Richard and Oracene were able to instill these values in their daughters. It either had to be fun, or they weren’t going to do it.

Education was essential. Richard and Oracene gave the family the tools they needed to succeed outside of the tennis court. And that’s what makes Venus and Serena such interesting figures, because their legacy is far beyond great tennis players. And that’s a huge legacy in and of itself. Ask them and they will tell you that they are only just starting their lives, there is so much more they can do. That foundation was built with Richard and Oracene, at home, and the support of their daughters.

Black males are frequently depicted as dangerous and violent figures, as well absentee fathers or errant ones. The film presents a sensitive and transparent view of the violence in some Black communities. It incorporates the violence into the story to give us a more nuanced picture of Compton as well as the surrounding community.

This is a story about a father—well, a family—a father and his relationship with his daughters. How did you balance the story about black masculinity

Will himself is a father of a daughter, and I know that he knows what it’s like raising a young woman, and what that challenge is like (and opportunity); trying to give everything you want to your kids, but them wanting a life of their own. Where’s the balance? Balance is something that children teach you.

As a parent, I know the importance of reminding your children what they need. We’re challenged as parents every day to listen to our kids—listen to them and not choke them off. It’s not about what we want for them, it’s about what they should want for themselves. We’re there to guide them and protect them, but to let them live their own lives.

Look, masculinity is part of it; but it’s part of just being a good parent, it’s part of being a good human being, and allowing your children to become who they’re going to become and guiding them to that.