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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
"King Richard" is a sports biopic about the early days of superstar tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams. But, as its title suggests, the film focuses on their demanding and ambitious father, Richard Williams.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
The movie stars Will Smith as a man who will do anything to get his daughters from Compton to Wimbledon. I'm Aisha Harris.
THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about "King Richard" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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THOMPSON: Here with Aisha and me today is Daisy Rosario. She's an executive producer at Stitcher with the show "Celebrity Book Club With Chelsea Devantez." It's in its first season right now. Hey, Daisy.
DAISY ROSARIO: Hey, how's it going?
THOMPSON: It's going great - great to have you. Also joining us is Monica Castillo. She's an arts and culture reporter with Colorado Public Radio. Welcome back, Monica
MONICA CASTILLO, BYLINE: Glad to be here.
THOMPSON: Glad to have you. "King Richard" is an unusual sports biopic in that it's not focused on Venus or Serena Williams so much as the overbearing man who drew up a 78-page plan for their success. Richard Williams basically raised his daughters from birth with the idea that they would grow up to be tennis champions. Though he and his wife Brandy, played by Aunjanue Ellis, have children from other relationships, together the Williamses trained Venus and Serena on abandoned tennis courts in their hometown of Compton while also looking for coaching help from an overwhelmingly white tennis world.
The movie follows the family through Venus and Serena Williams' early days, from their training as kids through Venus' national breakthrough at a competitive tournament when she was 14. We see Venus, played by Saniyya Sidney, as she develops her killer instinct. And we see Serena, played by Demi Singleton, as she first begins to escape her sister's long shadow. But mostly we see Will Smith as Richard Williams, a stubborn, flawed, ambitious, hard-charging father figure whose plans succeed wildly, sometimes, it would seem, in spite of himself. The film was directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin. And it's both in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
Daisy, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "King Richard"?
ROSARIO: I ended up really liking it, which I say in that tone...
ROSARIO: ...Because that's not what I was expecting when I sat down, in part for kind of everything that you have explained in the intro. You know, I'm a huge fan of the Williams sisters. There definitely was, you know, a question in my mind of, like, OK, like, why are we telling it this way? You know, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. Let's see. There also were some details about Will Smith's performance that I kind of had to get used to - I guess is how I'll put it - in the start. But I would say it's the kind of movie that once I settled into it, then I really enjoyed it.
But the cast - you know, I know that this is, like, definitely Will Smith Oscar bait. And I'm sure we'll talk a lot about that, too. But the rest of the cast is so charming, in particular, the girls who play not just Venus and Serena, but the rest of the Williams daughters. I mean, those parts of the movie just really made me emotional, you know? And so I really, really ended up enjoying it.
And I also saw it with an audience that was into it, which was fun. It's probably the most raucous audience I have been in a movie theater with since the pandemic. And so it was fun to be in a theater full of people clapping and oohing and aahing and having, you know, a serious emotional reaction to the story of this family. So yeah, I was not sure and then ended up really enjoying it.
THOMPSON: Yeah, it is a crowd-pleaser (laughter). Monica, were you part of a crowd that was pleased?
CASTILLO: I was certainly part of a crowd that was pleased. I had the privilege of getting to see it at Telluride. So it was one of the first audiences to see it. And they were also really into it. That was a great experience. And it kind of, I think, helped in, like, my enjoyment a little bit.
I definitely also ended up on the like side on this one. It's not maybe my favorite movie that we're talking about for potential Oscar consideration, but I like it for what it is. And what it is is that inspiring sports biopic, but it's told from a different perspective.
I also was a little skeptical going into it, wondering, why are we telling the story of these amazing women through the eyes of their father? But there's enough going on in the background about parenting and that pressure and all these different things and conversations that come up that this is a different version of that story. And I appreciated it for what it did.
THOMPSON: All right. Thank you, Monica. Aisha, what did you think of "King Richard"?
HARRIS: Well, I think I'm going to be the humph (ph) person of the group (laughter).
THOMPSON: You're going to be the cloud over the...
HARRIS: I mean, look, I actually did wind up liking it more than I thought I would - like, went in with very low expectations. If you know me at all, you know how much I really, really just don't like biopics as a general rule. I think what most surprised me was that it's not as much of a hagiography as I thought it was going to be. Like, yes, there are a lot of scenes of, you know, Richard Williams being this inspirational figure, but there are some scenes that kind of undercut that and sort of challenge the fact that, like, maybe some of the things he does aren't always in the best interests of his daughters, and maybe he is sort of self-serving.
And there's a really great scene between him and Oracene, played by Aunjanue Ellis, who basically says, I'm staying with you because of the kids. But you have all of this baggage - you came with all this baggage, and I dealt with it. They sort of briefly mention his - the fact that he has way more kids than are even in this movie. There's five total, and some of them are her kids from a different marriage. But he has other kids or whatever. So it's interesting to see that, like, he had an entirely different family before this, and he may or may not have abandoned them - and that it's suggested as that.
I think the thing about this movie is that, you know, America and sports movies and any sort of biography - they tend to have this sort of pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps mentality in general, the way these stories are told. And it's, like, always the person who's coming from, you know, nothing - from, as Will Smith's character says several times, the ghetto (laughter) - and rising up.
And this movie also has the issue of, like, the sort of Oedipal complex in that it's also focusing so much on Richard, and it's called "King Richard." And to me, I couldn't get over that hump. To me, it wasn't the interesting story. And it felt very insular, too.
There - I wanted to see the story about what it was like for these girls to be that young and feel that pressure. And we get hints of that. For so many years, their physicality was compared to animals. They were not the quintessential, quote-unquote, "beauties" like these other female tennis stars. They were called aggressive. And I would have loved to see more of that and less of King Richard, to be honest.
HARRIS: I don't think the focus is where it should be, and it just did not work for me in that regard.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I hear that. I think I came out of this movie a little bit more with Daisy and Monica but really went into it - as you said, Aisha, this movie had a huge hump to get over. And I think just the question is whether that hump was steep enough in your individual case.
And for me, I really did not expect to like this movie. I have really struggled with biopics, as we've discussed on this show. I was really put off by - just on paper - this being the story of the man at the center of these, like, two dominant female athletes' lives. But I think the movie, for what it is, really pulls it off well. I think it is a really effectively made movie. I think it does a nice job balancing some really strong kind of family drama with the beats of, like - of a sports movie.
I did find it enormously kind of crowd-pleasing, and crowd-pleasing is a double-edged sword. Like, it can mean really formulaic. But it also, like, is enjoyable, and that's why it's a crowd-pleaser.
I do think this is a movie that starts with a Will Smith Oscar campaign and works its way outward from that, and that can be a little hard to get past. But I actually thought this was a really effective performance by him, once you kind of get past the accent, which didn't take me very long...
THOMPSON: ...Compared to, I think, some people. I thought this was one of his stronger performances. And I was able to lose Will - the Will Smith-iness (ph) of it all pretty quickly and feel like I was watching this guy.
HARRIS: It's interesting that you say that because I didn't.
HARRIS: But I don't think that's - but that's not necessarily a knock on him because he's a movie star. He is not the type of movie star who gets lost in characters. Like, while I was watching "Ali," I never thought he was Ali. I never...
ROSARIO: Oh, a hundred percent.
HARRIS: ...Didn't realize it was Will Smith. This is true of any character that Tom Cruise has played.
HARRIS: I always see Tom Cruise. But that's not a knock on him.
HARRIS: I just think some of the best movie stars are the ones who - like, they are a movie star first. I mean I - my understanding was that, based on a few interviews, they actually were going to give him, like, a ton of prosthetics. And...
THOMPSON: Oh, wow.
HARRIS: ...The director...
ROSARIO: Oh, God.
HARRIS: ...Pulled back on that. And I'm really glad (laughter) they did.
THOMPSON: Yeah, oof.
HARRIS: Can you imagine?
ROSARIO: Good call.
CASTILLO: Yeah, I think that's already the start of the Oscar campaign. Oh, I was willing to go this extra mile.
HARRIS: Oh, yeah.
CASTILLO: They had to reel me back in.
THOMPSON: I have often said that the only thing worse than an unauthorized biography is an authorized biography.
THOMPSON: And you can often - like, there was this Selena TV show a little while back that was...
HARRIS: Ah, yes.
THOMPSON: ...Authorized by her family. And it was just ruined...
ROSARIO: Cannot see my eye roll.
THOMPSON: ...In part by the fact that it was so clearly the family insisting on the story being told the way it was told.
Did you feel the hand of the Williams family? They are credited as producers. They were clearly involved in the way this story was told.
ROSARIO: I think that, for me, that's part of why it actually ended up working in terms of having the focus be on the father. Last year, I executive produced a podcast about Tiger Woods. And, you know, you can't help but think of these two fathers if you know their stories - right? - like, these fathers who basically had these plans for their children to break through in white sports specifically, that they were working them from, like, the moment they were born towards this goal. And they're both really interesting characters in different ways.
What I know of Tiger Woods' father from, you know, working on that show, I would say was part of what I couldn't get out of the back of my head in a way that justified this movie to me because I think you do see the father making decisions that don't make sense to everyone. And that's not to say that every decision he makes is absolutely the right one but that he is at least making some decisions with an awareness of his status in the world and what will happen with his daughters when they start to access certain things in their success.
And for me, remembering how Richard Williams was covered at the time and also thinking about how Tiger Woods' father was talked about, I could see how these two incredible women, Venus and Serena, would actually have a desire to say, like, hey, he didn't get the respect he deserved. And we wouldn't have done this without him. And we want to paint this in a slightly different light even. We're not painting him as an angel, but you didn't understand his choices then, and we want to give you a sense of some of the choices he was making and why he was making them through this story.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I kept thinking - Tiger Woods' dad was also kind of in the back of my mind, but I also kept thinking of Joe Jackson. And, you know, in the early '90s, there was a miniseries that had, I think, most of the family's involvement that - of the Jackson family called "The Jacksons: An American Dream." And that show, in a way, is so interesting to watch and compare to this because that also shows sort of the warts and all in a way. It briefly shows the philandering that he did. It also shows him beating his kids, although this was a different time. And so it's interesting to see the way that show treats it as, like, he beat his kids, but look how they became the superstar.
And while obviously, you know, Richard Williams - there's no sense that he actually disciplined his children in that way, he did push them very hard. And a lot of characters in this movie question him. And there's even a scene where a neighbor apparently called the police on both the parents in the Williams family accusing them of abuse, which I think is interesting. And you keep hearing Richard Williams say, I do this to keep my kids off the streets. And it's like - makes me question sort of the way we think about parenting.
And I'm not sure the movie necessarily clarified things for me when it comes to why he did some of the things he did because clearly, his - he wanted his kids to be the greatest superstars of all time. But then he also, like, keeps pulling them back and says, I want - I also want him to have a childhood. And I guess it confused me a little bit, but it also made it a little bit more of a sticky and more challenging movie that - in a way that I appreciated, that I was kind of surprised to be - to feel. I was expecting it to be more just, like, straightforward. But it does kind of challenge things in a way that I do find interesting.
THOMPSON: I did appreciate how much it was willing to muddy the waters of that. I mean, we can all talk about these different sports parents...
THOMPSON: ...And just that, like, sports huckster dad...
THOMPSON: ...Who's really good at getting interviewed. I appreciated, as Daisy said, the fact that this film was kind of willing to explore some of the motivations behind that and some of the methods to that.
I would have liked this movie dramatically less if it had not included these scenes with Venus and Serena's mom Brandy, who also goes by Oracene, just allowing the story to undercut Richard's bs. Because whatever you think of Richard Williams and whatever you think of that parenting style, whatever you think of the moves that he made throughout the course of their career, like, he was clearly an incredibly frustrating person to be around - and just...
ROSARIO: (Laughter) Yeah.
THOMPSON: ...Like, having it not be entirely from his perspective. I think that Aunjanue Ellis performance is really outstanding.
THOMPSON: And I just found myself pulled to the screen whenever she's on to the point where I was thinking, man, there is another movie to be made that is focused on her where he is - Will Smith is going for best supporting actor.
THOMPSON: And their mother, who has - who is also a hard-charging person, also has athletic gifts, also trains them, also has lots and lots of opinions about athletic greatness and work-life balance and then has to kind of do everything - the old backwards in high heels. She has to do all that work of raising these kids with this guy muddying all the waters and stirring everything up and being a giant pain in the rear end.
THOMPSON: If anything, I would have taken - you know, kind of like Aisha said, I would have taken less "King Richard," but I would have watched Queen Brandy all day long.
CASTILLO: I was just thinking Queen Brandy because...
CASTILLO: ...That - yeah. Aisha already cited that scene where she kind of calls him out. And she's almost basically the only person who can really do that...
CASTILLO: ...In the whole movie, that really, you know, brings him down a level and really humbles him for a second - at least a second. You know, it's actually really impressive, and I also would happily cheer her on should, you know, they mount a support - best supporting actress campaign for her.
ROSARIO: I mean, yeah. Like, every time that it was clear she was about to say something, the audience was practically leaning forward...
ROSARIO: ...In mid-screening. I mean, they were just, like, ready. She's fantastic in it, and she makes the whole dynamic very believable between the two of them.
HARRIS: Yeah. I just wish - why couldn't it have been both of them? Why couldn't it have been a story about both of their struggles to - like, this whole family and the sacrifices they make? As much as I loved that scene where she undercuts him, it also just kind of reinforced the fact that this movie is called "King Richard." And it's - like, at one point, she says something along the lines of, I don't need all the credit from the world that you do. But I also think she does deserve the credit.
HARRIS: And, you know, no relationship is 50/50. Like, there's always a little bit more, a little bit less at any given time. But it would have been nice to have seen even just a little bit more of a balance there I think.
ROSARIO: For me though, it was just so realistic to so many of the dynamics I've watched in my life that I think that was a part of it for me. I mean, just truly - like, I have literally done stories in the past about how amazing my grandparents are, right? And it's like, if I think about it in that way, like, it's hard to make the part of my grandmother more exciting because she really did keep it so close to the vest.
And so seeing that dynamic felt so real to me. Not necessarily healthy - right? - and not necessarily positive, but it felt authentic enough to me in a way where I was like, yeah, especially of a particular generation, there's so many women who really are a force but very purposely kept it close to the vest. So I think for me, there was an aspect of that seeming very true to that generation as I've experienced it.
ROSARIO: You know, I understand the desire, but it also - I was like, this might really be to a degree, you know, how it really was for this family.
CASTILLO: I think there's also sort of like a religious factor just like...
CASTILLO: ...Very lightly hinted at here and there that it also kind of reminded me of, like, "Selena." It's not upfront. They don't really talk about it. We don't follow them to church or anything, but it's in the background. It's still within the dynamic of those relationships and how family business is conducted and how decisions are made. And sometimes it's from the top down; sometimes, you know, the partner is not consulted. And that's also frustrating and also creates drama which then, you know, leads to some more narrative action.
THOMPSON: Knowing how we all feel about biopics (laughter), do you want a Venus and Serena biopic? Do you feel like this is - this can be seen as, like, a prequel to a biopic that is more about them or do you just want documentaries and actually watching them play tennis?
HARRIS: I mean, I'm almost always going to be in favor of the docu-style approach. I want to see, like, a very longer deep dive documentary or just a series of interviews; just having them sit down and talk for hours about what it was like for them to be in the spotlight. But that's just me 'cause I'm just - (laughter) I'm not a biopic person. What can I say?
HARRIS: There are exceptions, but it's hard for me to think of any off the top of my head.
CASTILLO: I don't know. That - biopics are still - like, commercially and just the way that people access film, I think they reach a larger audience than a lot of documentaries do. You know, when it's a rainy day at school, and the substitute teacher...
HARRIS: (Laughter) God.
CASTILLO: ...Pops in a video...
CASTILLO: ...Chances are it's a biopic.
HARRIS: So true - that's so true.
THOMPSON: And now...
THOMPSON: ...Here's "Ray." Yeah.
CASTILLO: You know, in order to kind of, like, pass on the - maybe some of the lessons that they've learned or knowledge or their stories, whatever it might be, I think - I wouldn't rule it out. I think there's still a use for that form of storytelling.
ROSARIO: I would say I'm with Monica in the sense that I kind of want both.
ROSARIO: I think I do like biopics more than most of this group so far. But, you know, again, it's like I like them in the way that I sometimes like Domino's Pizza, not that I can eat it.
ROSARIO: But in terms of what I'd like to see of Venus and Serena themselves, you know, I think even though I'm pro biopic, I don't really want one until they're much older, right? Like, I'd really like it to be something that we do cover whether or not, you know, Serena breaks that all-time record, which I'm still hoping she does; things like that. I think their story isn't really finished yet. And to make kind of a wonderfully cliche biopic, you kind of have to have gone through, you know, these various points in their lives. So I'll take the docs until.
ROSARIO: And then I hope that they make epic ones when I'm, like, a, you know, grandmother.
HARRIS: Yeah. They're only in their early 40s, so it's like (laughter) come on.
THOMPSON: Yeah, (unintelligible).
HARRIS: They - I don't think they've - well, I don't know, but I doubt that they've peaked, at least outside of what they've done in tennis. I think they've still got a long way to go.
THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about "King Richard." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to all of you for being here.
HARRIS: Thank you.
ROSARIO: Thank you.
THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all tomorrow.
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