To Be a Black Girl, and To Be Protected

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A still from the film ‘King Richard’ depicting parents Richard and Oracene walking past a tennis court with four of their daughters.
Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene “Brandy” Price, Mikayla Bartholomew as Tunde Price, Will Smith as Richard Williams, Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams, Demi Singleton as Serena Williams and Danielle Lawson as Isha Price in Warner Bros. Pictures’ inspiring drama ‘King Richard,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (© 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Photo Credit: Chiabella James)

King Richard presents a world in which Black girls are loved, protected and nurtured in their pursuit of a goal. It’s a world of lively family van rides with Richard Williams at the wheel and a group of Black girls, including Venus and Serena Williams, glowing, laughing and listening in the backseat. It’s a world of creative tennis lessons on a Compton court.

The film, in theaters and on HBO Max on Nov. 19, follows Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his wife Oracene “Brandy” Price (a piercing Aunjanue Ellis) as they guide and train their two young daughters, Venus and Serena, to become the tennis champions we know today.

Not even halfway through the film, I started to tear up. A warmly-lit scene with Richard checking on his daughters before bed and making sure they did their homework touched me because there was such care in how these girls were treated and nurtured. There was such joy in the collective movement of the sisters together.

One of the strengths of the film is its inclusion of Serena and Venus’ sisters Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea as characters, so we’re invited into this familial world that feels textured and lived-in. Venus and Serena never feel alone, or on an individual mission. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green finds power in the collective, communal elements of the story, rooted in the family. 

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While some of the critique of the film may focus on the decision to center Richard Williams in a film about his daughters, I was mostly moved by the ways in which young Venus and Serena (played beautifully by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) were loved and protected by their mother and father as they navigated the competitive, white, affluent world of tennis. Their confidence and light as Black girls were preserved throughout. Richard demanded they remain grounded and humble, rebuffing any bragging. They were also allowed to revel in joy and fun, and choose the sport instead of being forced to play it.

King Richard is full of warmth and intimacy. Crowded shots of the sisters in the van, traveling together as a unit, form this kind of visual chorus throughout the film. Profile shots of Richard driving the family van give this sense of a road movie, as much of the narrative happens in the family car. The tennis scenes capture the power and intensity that have made Venus and Serena exemplary in the sport.

So many times as Black girls and women, we walk through life without a shield, and become the targets of other people’s stigmas, racism, aggression and pain. To protect the light, hope and confidence in young girls is beautiful, and it happens in King Richard.

When Venus walks onto the court for her biggest match in Oakland, she walks proudly, beads swinging from side to side. She believes in herself. This is the love and care that Richard and Oracene instill in their daughters, and it is so beautifully on display in this film. This is the light that we continue to root for in these women. It is a light that cannot be crushed. I loved this film for that. This is why I became emotional. 

The film made me think of my own parents. Growing up in the Bay, my mother encouraged me to read novels, write poetry and go to dance class. She stayed up all night to help my cousin sew outfits for an African dance performance at our school’s talent show. She always tried to protect my siblings and I. In one scene, Richard shields Venus from an interviewer’s invasive questions about her confidence and skill. He understands how fragile his daughter’s mind is at that age and won’t allow anyone to make her doubt herself.

The decision to prop up a flawed, controversial figure like Richard is likely to be discussed. Can a father who wasn’t there for his other family be a protector? (His lack of involvement in some of his children’s lives is addressed in the film during a tense confrontation between him and Oracene.) Can imperfect people love and guide their families toward a positive outcome in life? These questions are what make this film fascinating to me. Richard reminded me of my father in his bold, unapologetic, sometimes brash vision and behavior, and in his purpose. Will Smith transforms into Richard, using his mastery of the real figure’s diction, accent and voice (and those white tennis shorts!) to help anchor the performance.

Venus and Serena’s ascent was definitely orchestrated by their father, though some of his decisions might’ve been deemed selfish. One thing that this movie does well is providing other characters who aren’t afraid to challenge Richard and point out his flaws and mistakes, including his wife Oracene and the girls’ coach Rick Macci (an excellent Jon Bernthal). Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene gives one of the best performances of the year. She doubles as the girls’ coach, a loving mother and their confidante.

As I watched the film, I thought of the phrase “protect Black girls and women.” The way Richard and Oracene protect and love their daughters serves as the foundation for the success and greatness that we know today in Venus and Serena Williams. This film reminds us that love and care go a long way.

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Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Her debut feature film, Jinn, premiered at the 2018 South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where she won the Special Jury Recognition Award for Screenwriting. She's written and directed for shows including Blindspotting, Insecure, Queen Sugar, Wu-Tang: An American Saga and Swagger.