Give Will Smith this much credit for a true-to-life portrayal: Richard Williams always had trouble removing himself and his ego from the story of Venus and Serena, too. The worst part of Smith’s explosively aggrieved narcissism masquerading as familial “love” during the Academy Awards was that it dragged the story backward, turned women of powerful agency into bystanders to a guy who fancied himself the central actor in their success and couldn’t make himself sit down.
Anyone who witnessed the real-life events portrayed in the Oscar-worthy film “King Richard” knows there is some Hollywood fiction in it, despite the family’s cooperation. Perhaps the biggest is the relegation of the Williams sisters and their mother, Oracene Price, to “supporting” roles in events driven by a lone hero. Oracene, Venus and Serena were as responsible, if not more so, for their spring-loaded competitive rise and resilience in a sport rife with dry-rot racism, overwrought children pressed into wage-earners and domineering fathers acting out.
Richard had his strengths, and one of them was a determination to protect his daughters’ long-term health. But at times he could behave like any other volatile stage parent who lived through his kids, and he did and said things they had to awkwardly play through. He had real excesses, and Smith’s behavior at the Oscars managed to re-evoke them instead of celebrate his better side.
“Just like they said, I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things,” Smith said, disingenuously excusing himself for the ugly smacking of Chris Rock onstage over a bad joke directed at Jada Pinkett Smith.
A centerpiece of the film is Venus Williams’s 1994 professional debut at age 14 at a tournament in Oakland, Calif. Anyone who was in the stands for her electrifying first-round victory over Shaun Stafford recalls what the film leaves out: how Richard bizarrely began to yell “Come on, Shaun!” and made every head in the arena swivel toward him as he stood up and acted as though he was rooting against Venus.
Afterward, he spun the legend that he yelled it because he was so reluctant to let Venus turn pro. He insisted, “I’ve been trying to get her to quit since she was 8.” In fact, by the time Venus entered the Oakland tournament, she had a lawyer, an accountant and an investment adviser.
There is no overstating or perhaps even understanding what vicious undertows of racism and classism the Williamses fought through to get there, or the implacable will with which they met those forces. But the Richard-as-lone-defender narrative is a disservice — because whatever Richard surmounted, so did the rest of the family collectively.
The movie’s portrayal of their rigorous home schooling is no exaggeration; Oracene got a degree in education from Western Michigan, and as teens Venus and Serena could already field questions from the international media in French with aplomb.
If Richard was a “fierce defender” of his family, it was not with Smith’s brand of run-amok emotion but with calculation and cool intentionality. Venus was just 10 and Serena was 9 when they first consulted with a visionary entertainment lawyer named Keven Davis, who represented Wynton Marsalis. The family that arrived in Oakland was hardly alone amid the sharks as the movie portrays; it was already flanked by a formidable team of advisers in Davis, a Wharton-educated tax accountant named Larry Bailey and another adviser in Leland Hardy, who would become the managing director of rap artist Master P’s No Limit Sports agency.
“We’re just trying to keep balanced and stay on the high ground,” Oracene said.
Mostly they did so, and if the balance seemed to tilt, it was usually when Richard put a foot on the scale. If he was unfairly a target, it was often because he made himself the focal point. When Venus and Serena had to face each other for the first time as pros at a 1999 tournament, a difficult emotional event for both, Richard again made every head swivel when he stood up in the stands and held a hand-lettered whiteboard sign that said, “I TOLD YOU SO!” He gave increasingly provocative interviews, such as announcing that he was thinking about “buying Rockefeller Center.” Maybe some of it was an effort to take the heat off the sisters or to troll the white tennis press for ridiculing him and treating his early claims about their talent as bombast. A lot of it, the world had coming. But some just seemed like heat-seeking ego, and at times it threatened to tow his daughters into controversy they didn’t ask for.
Such as the occasion in 1998 when he told me, for a story that ran in a now-defunct Condé Nast magazine: “Most people thought, because I was in Compton, that I was poor. Well, the only reason we moved to Compton was that I felt I could buy more homes there than the Jews. They were buying up the ghetto; I just wanted to give them a little competition. … We were making tons of money. Everyone thought we were poor, that tennis was our way out. It was not. … I wanted to give the Weinsteins, the Rubensteins, the I-forget-the-other-steins competition.”
In 1999, Oracene Price was treated for three broken ribs at a hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla., and medical staff called police on the suspicion she was the victim of domestic violence. She declined to file charges and told an officer she feared the impact on her daughters’ careers. Richard denied any abuse and reportedly maintained that her injuries were caused by a Jet Ski accident. Oracene later told the New York Post, “I don’t Jet Ski.” When outsiders judged the family dynamic, she resolutely remarked, “They are not living our lives; we are.” Oracene and Richard divorced in 2002, and Richard has faded from public view after a series of strokes.
The Williamses are a palpably close and loving clan, and whatever their patriarch’s flaws, they participated as producers on “King Richard” and approved the film’s version of him. There is a good deal of legitimate truth in Smith’s acting of him, from his defiance of tennis orthodoxy to his long view of his children’s futures. But when Smith commandeered the Oscar stage and tried to excuse his own behavior by coupling it with Richard’s “fierce defense” of family, he badly misportrayed the source of familial strength.
A real statement of strength is what Oracene Price once said about why she has never taken more public credit for her daughters. And it indicates just where they got theirs.
“I don’t need glory — I’m already happy with myself,” she said.
Now why doesn’t someone make a movie about that kind of hero?