Released within weeks of each other, the film “King Richard,” starring Will Smith, and Smith’s memoir, “Will,” have created a remarkable moment for audiences to witness Black men not giving into the ideals or constraints that society imposes on them.
In both, we see Black men as fathers, partners and businessmen. We see them daring to dream, making mistakes, growing through adversity, failing and succeeding. The significance of both of these releases at a time when the experiences of Black Americans are being trivialized — from courtrooms to the halls of Congress to schools — should not go unnoticed. But what should also not be ignored is the powerful way in which Smith’s and Richard Williams’ lives mirror each other.
Both men also realized that success couldn’t protect them from racism.
“King Richard,” which tells the story of Williams and how he catapulted his daughters Venus and Serena Williams to tennis stardom, opens in U.S. movie theaters and HBO Max on Friday. The film depicts how the patriarch devised a strategy to help his then-youngest two children thrive in a sport where few Black women had previously succeeded. It should be noted that although both have obviously become tennis stars, the film primarily focuses on Venus Williams because it’s looking at the very early stages of the girls’ development. Venus Williams is older and in some ways became her father’s blueprint for developing Serena Williams later.
The fact that Williams had no experience as a coach or any background in tennis made this feat more remarkable. Before instructing their daughters, he and his then-wife, Oracene Price, played by the brilliant Aunjanue Ellis, taught themselves the sport. Their beginnings were humble, particularly when the family lived in the gang-infested neighborhood of Compton, California.
So it’s understandable that Smith would want to play the title character. He may not physically resemble Williams — a point of contention when the casting was announced — but he can relate to him on several levels. Smith, like Williams, took a chance and achieved global success in an industry that hasn’t always been welcoming to Black men or women.
“I felt like I knew him immediately,” Smith told Brian Truitt from USA Today. “He’s very similar to my father in some ways. I understood what it meant to feel brutalized by the world and to have a dream that nobody believes in but you, and you’re not going to let that deter you. I got the heart of him.”
Yes, he certainly did get the heart of him. Although it’s the actresses — Ellis, Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams) — who really add depth to the film, this is Smith’s best role yet.
Past events have had an impact on both men. Williams grew up in the Jim Crow South. And Smith, who grew up in West Philadelphia, described in his book, released Nov. 9, how his father’s abuse of his mother left an impression on him. From these painful experiences, Smith and Williams developed one common attribute that is evident throughout their lives: confidence.
The significance of both of these releases at a time when the experiences of Black Americans are being trivialized should not go unnoticed.
It took confidence for Smith to enter the world of hip-hop, at that time dominated by a hardcore style and sound, with a clean image and lyrics. That same level of self-belief helped him break into television and then the big screen — as an actor and a producer.
On screen, we see Venus and Serena Williams’ father daring to enter the upper echelons and white world of tennis, demanding respect and a chance for his daughters. There is a desperation in him that is palpable. It’s felt during a teary-eyed conversation with a young Venus one night on the tennis court. “This next step you ‘bout to take, you not gon’ just be representin’ you. You gon be representin’ every little Black girl on Earth,” he says. It’s the type of exchange between parent and child that will probably bring back memories for Black adults who heard the same thing growing up. And in a country where there are industries that are still seeing the “first Black” or person of color to do something, some variations of Williams’ words are still being said across America.
Williams witnessed firsthand how America treated Black people and was determined to keep his daughters from becoming statistics. But at times that desperation clouded his judgement. As you watch “King Richard” and read “Will,” you witness how both men were blessed with partners who would challenge them on this particular blind spot.
In one profound scene, Price and Williams stand tensely in the family’s kitchen as she takes him to task about him making decisions that are self-gratifying without considering how it affects the girls or the rest of the family. She reminded him at the moment that he isn’t building this legacy alone and that she has been right there fighting alongside him.
Smith openly detailed in his memoir how he similarly struggled with being focused on a singular idea of what a successful family should look like. He wrote candidly about how he wrestled with his first marriage and fatherhood. He acknowledged how his ex-wife, Sheree Zampino, felt that the more successful his career became, the less she felt seen in the marriage. He shared the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, writing that the two cherish the opportunities they get to grow and learn from each other.
Both men also realized that success couldn’t protect them from racism. While discussing the book, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Smith revealed that one of the instances when he was called a racial slur was by a police officer when he was with his manager.
For Williams, one infamous situation, which was not included in the film because of when it happened in the girls’ career, was at the 2001 Indian Wells tournament. Venus and Serena Williams were scheduled to play each other. When Venus Williams was forced to retire from the competition because of an injury, some speculated that it was staged. As she and her father took their seats in the stands, he alleged that an angry crowd who was booing them also used racial slurs toward him.
While “King Richard” is the story of Williams and, more importantly, the Williams family, it is also a full circle moment for Smith — one that has been made clear by the release of his memoir. Smith was in the right place in his life as a man and an artist to embark on this journey, and audiences are going to reap the benefits of that.