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A spirit that is not afraid

'King Richard' builds a kingdom on hard work and happiness

The biographical film empowers in its star-studded retelling of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams

Richard Williams [played by Will Smith] talks to his young tennis stars, Venus and Serena [played by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively] in the new film, "King Richard.
Richard Williams [played by Will Smith] talks to his young tennis stars, Venus and Serena [played by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively] in the new film, "King Richard.

From the time they were born, Richard Williams had a plan for his daughters, Venus and Serena, to make them tennis stars. 

Reinaldo Marcus Green, known for his directorial work in “Monsters and Men” and “Top Boy,” brings the story of Venus and Serena Williams' rise to greatness to the big screen in his newest work, “King Richard.” 

The film is led by Will Smith in the title role, supported by Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton star in their breakout roles as Venus and Serena, respectively. 

“Saniyya and I just did a lot of research,” Singleton said at a press conference. “And it was really important to us that everything we did was real … because this is not our story. This is theirs.”

The biographical film follows the Williams sisters’ rise to international tennis stardom. Following the lead of their father, Richard, Venus and Serena put hours of work into becoming the next big stars in tennis history. The courts of Compton, California, soon become the training grounds for their success. At the time, Venus and Serena were only seven and six years old, respectively.

Goldwyn takes on the role of Paul Cohen, a top tennis coach at the time whom Richard calls upon to coach his daughters. Cohen had played in the US National Junior Championships, was Captain of Berkeley’s tennis team and had coached the likes of Grand Slam-winner John McEnroe. 

“I reached out and found the real Paul Cohen and had long conversations with him and asked him about his relationship with the Williams family,” Goldwyn said. “And he said what I wanted him to say, which was that … even though it's intense, he expressed tremendous love for the family and incredible admiration for Richard.”

Under the guidance of Cohen, by 1990 Venus Williams became the only undefeated 10-and-under player in Southern California, as reported by the New York Times. By ages 10 and 11, the Williams sisters had garnered national attention. It was at that time that Richard made the decision to withdraw them from junior competitions and save them from any unnecessary competitive pressures.

A year later, after turning down several offers, Richard called upon the guidance of Rick Macci, played by Jon Bernthal. Though he was not initially taken aback, Macci left the meeting telling Richard he had “the next Michael Jordan,” referring to Venus; Richard replied he had the next two.

“This was all about family,” Bernthal said. “Parenthood is the most important job, it's the hardest job [and] it's a job that you're never going to get perfect … The thing that I connected with Rick and in talking to so many of the folks that had played for him … was fun — that he loved the game, and he made it fun.”

Smith recalled an early conversation he had with Venus, in which she said, “It’s almost like they brainwashed us.” To her and her sister, not being able to play tennis was a punishment; that is how much they had come to love the sport. Smith said that Richard’s approach to coaching was “throwing fuel on a fire” that his daughters already possessed. 

“When I take a role … I'm taking it to explore something, I'm taking it to learn something,” Smith said. “And that was a new parenting idea for me, of aligning with your children versus directing your children … It was a very different concept and approach that was magical in the Williams family.” 

“King Richard” not only showcases the true story of a strong and unwavering dedication to winning, but it displays the loving family dynamic behind the Williams sisters’ successes. The film goes on to follow the legendary success of Venus and Serena Williams through their tennis careers. In 1994, at the age of 14, Venus went pro at the U.S. Open, followed by her sister a year later. 

“Being able to step into Venus’ shoes helped me grow as a young woman,” Sidney said. “They were so humble at such a young age. And, you know, they had such a great father … Again, family is everything.”

“King Richard” won awards at Film Fest 919, the Heartland International Film Festival, the Philadelphia Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival. 

"King Richard" premieres in theatres across the country on Friday, Nov. 19.

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