Features and Columns · Movies

The Real Story Behind ‘King Richard’

We break down the true story of the man who raised and coached Venus and Serena Williams.
King Richard Will Smith
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on October 12th, 2021

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind King Richard, a biopic about Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams.

Serena and Venus Williams are among the greatest tennis players and athletes of all time. In fact, many say Serena might be the greatest athlete to ever live. But they are not at the center of an upcoming biopic involving their lives.

King Richard centers, instead, on the duo’s father, Richard Williams. The dramatic feature tells the story of Williams (portrayed by Will Smith in an Oscar-worthy performance)  raising and coaching two young girls to become tennis champions.

Whether you’re about to watch the film or you just finished watching and are looking for more information, here is a look at the true story behind King Richard. 

Richard Williams Decides to Parent Tennis Champions

Richard Williams was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1942. The son of a sharecropper, he faced racism and violence from an early age, including at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. After the release of his memoir in 2014, he reportedly told a crowd of “being hit over the head with a baseball bat, a bottle, and a flashlight,” all by white attackers:

“I had to do something, and what I wanted to do was kill people. I had a war against the white race. But how in the hell can you have a war at eight years old?”

Williams then moved to California, where he learned how to play tennis. According to the New Yorker, he took lessons from a man named “Old Whiskey” and paid him with pints of booze. He then went on to write a 78-page plan on how to turn his children into tennis stars, even though they hadn’t yet been conceived.

He wrote the plan after learning the winner of the French Open received $40,000. Williams wanted his children to be successful, and he saw tennis as a means towards that end.

Venus & Serena Learn Tennis

After Venus and Serena were born, the Williams family moved to Compton. Both girls began holding tennis rackets while in their strollers, according to Biography, and Venus, who is the older of the two, began taking lessons when she was just four years old. Serena joined shortly thereafter.

Their father became their coach and champion. Richard Williams would often have to physically fight for them to secure court time. He sustained broken ribs and lost teeth. In his memoir, he writes:

“It had taken two years and almost destroyed my body and my spirit. But in that moment, none of that mattered. What mattered was the courts were ours.”

While gang violence initially served as a barrier to getting on the court, eventually, according to a CNN interview with Williams, gang members became protectors of the sisters as their celebrity grew. Both Venus and Serena faced shouting and insults — often fueled by racism — on the court, and gang members wanted to intervene.

But Williams refused. He’d say, “Criticism is one of the greatest things, I think, that we’ve been trained to live through.”

His own experiences with racism in the South informed his approach as a mental coach and mentor. But his work as a tennis coach and technician, especially given his own lack of formal coaching, often went underappreciated. In 2003, Serena told Oprah Winfrey:

“Our father doesn’t get enough credit. He showed us how to serve — and we have the biggest serves in women’s tennis.”

Richard Williams Defends Venus

Although Richard Williams has been in the public eye for as long as his daughters have, people may know him best for a moment that occurred when Venus was just 14 years old.  Already a star-in-the-making by that point, Venus sat down for an interview with ABC in 1995. The interviewer questioned her confidence in her ability and asked how she was so sure she would beat her next opponent.

The reporter kept pushing, asking, “You say it so easily. Why?” As Venus prepared to defend herself, her father stepped in and said:

“You’ve got to understand that you’re dealing with the image of a 14-year-old child. And this child is gonna be out there playing when your old ass and me are gonna be in the grave.”

The interview went viral in 2018, with many praising Richard Williams’ defense of his daughter. As he says in the clip:

“When she say something, we done told you what’s happening. You’re dealing with a little Black kid, and let her be a kid.”

The Stars are Born

Four years prior to the clip above, in 1991, the Williams family moved to Florida. There, their talents truly began to blossom as Richard Williams became one of several coaches in their life. Venus went pro in 1994. Serena did the same a year later.

According to a 2000 profile in The Guardian, Richard Williams did not always accompany his daughters to major events. When Venus made her debut at Wimbledon in 1997, he “stayed at home to mind his businesses.”

That kind of independence came to define their early years. While other young players were spending every spare second playing tennis, the Williams girls took a different approach to the junior tennis circuit. “In our spare time,” Serena told The Guardian, “we don’t go out and say, ‘Let’s go play tennis’. We’re more like, ‘Let’s go to the beach.'”

But as Venus and Serena grew as stars, their father became more and more of a public figure, especially after the release of his memoir. Fans of the Williams sisters can often spot him at their matches. In 1999, Richard Williams was there as Serena won the US Open. Afterward, he shouted, “Straight Outta Compton!”

The Actors Playing the Real Characters

While Richard Williams is the main, titular character of King Richard, the work of the Williams sisters’ mother, Oracene “Brandy” Price, cannot be overlooked (Aunjanue Ellis plays her in the film)Tom Perrotta, a longtime Tennis journalist for the Wall Street Journal, called her role in Venus and Serena’s careers “underappreciated.” In an interview with Perrotta, Serena said of the difference between her two parents:

“Well, my dad is so positive. I could be hitting a thousand errors and he’ll be like, ‘You’re playing great. You know, all you have to do is this.’ Whereas my mom is more, ‘You need to do this….’ My mom’s like more strict and tougher, but it’s good. … Believe it or not, my dad’s the good cop, and my mom’s the bad cop.”

Saniyya Sidney plays Venus and Demi Singleton plays Serena.

Here’s another true story that goes past what’s in King Richard. According to a recent GQ profile of Will Smith, the real Serena, while watching her life play out on screen, had to remind herself that she was watching the actor, not her actual father, on screen. She also says:

“My dad was and still is way before his time. You see, when someone is different — when they don’t act or look how a person assumed they would — the first reaction is often fear. They think, ‘How do we break them?’ My dad anticipated that, but he would not allow himself or his family to be broken.”

King Richard and its true story of the Williams family hit theaters on November 19, 2021.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.