'King Richard' authentically portrays the history of Venus and Serena Williams King Richard is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. Will Smith, Isha Price, and Aunjanue Ellis explain how faith motivated the Williams' family.

'King Richard,' the Oscar-nominated film, authentically depicts the Williams' history

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"King Richard" is up for best picture at this year's Academy Awards. It's the story of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams and their family. Will Smith plays their father, Richard Williams, who coaches and guides them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING RICHARD")

WILL SMITH: (As Richard Williams) You're not going to just be representing you. You're going to be representing every little Black girl on Earth.

CHANG: NPR's Mandalit del Barco spoke to the film's Oscar-nominated cast.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The filmmakers of "King Richard" say they wanted the blessings of the Williams family. So Isha Price, one of Venus and Serena's three older sisters, was on set every day to make sure they got it right.

ISHA PRICE: We'd been approached different times about doing a movie. And it never seemed to be right because the story's still being written. This script was different.

DEL BARCO: Price says they appreciated how the film started as Venus Williams' origin story, long before her little sister Serena would go on to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

PRICE: Serena is hands down the G.O.A.T. She's the best that's ever done it. But even she said historically that that doesn't happen without Venus, that there had to be somebody to bust that door open.

DEL BARCO: Just before the Oscars nominees' luncheon, I spoke with Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, both in the running for this year's best actor and best actress. Smith plays Richard Williams, who planned for his daughters Venus and Serena to become tennis royals even before they were born.

SMITH: The size and scope of the dream was so huge that it bordered on insanity, which is sort of where you have to live if you want to do something that's never been done before.

DEL BARCO: Ellis plays Oracene Price, the queen to King Richard.

AUNJANUE ELLIS: They're like, let's create tennis champions.

SMITH: Yes.

ELLIS: Let's procreate...

SMITH: Champions.

ELLIS: Yes. You know, and she said, OK. OK, bet. Sounds like a plan.

SMITH: (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: The film opens in the late 1980s, early 90's, when the family lived in Compton, a rough-and-tumble part of LA. Venus and Serena practiced in battered tennis courts while gang members hit on their older sister and literally beat their father in front of them. Williams worked the night shift as a security guard, ruling his family with love, humor and determination.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING RICHARD")

SMITH: (As Richard Williams) Just have some fun out there, Venus Williams. That's all this about. Have some fun.

DEL BARCO: Williams was their coach before moving the family to Florida for professional training. Smith says Williams made waves for taking the girls out of stressful tennis competitions so they could be kids.

SMITH: You know, this is a man who was battered and maligned in the press. And in retrospect, if you look at it, it was only because he was trying to protect his daughters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING RICHARD")

SMITH: (As Richard Williams) We got future doctors and lawyers, plus a couple of tennis stars in this house.

DEL BARCO: In this scene, Williams confronts police officers who were called to their house by a nosy neighbor who wanted to check on their five daughters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING RICHARD")

SMITH: (As Richard Williams) What you not going never do is come knock on this door talking about you had to blow they damn brains out in them streets 'cause they running with hoodlums and doing drugs and things. That's what you not never going say in this house.

DEL BARCO: Smith, who is one of the film's producers, says he got into character by speaking and dressing like the Louisiana-born king Richard Williams.

SMITH: The equivalent of his crown was those short shorts. Yeah, it sounds like a joke, but when I put those short shorts on, I understood. Oh, wait a second. He thinks he's fly (laughter) right? And I realized, oh, he has an image in his mind of what the tennis parent mogul looks like.

DEL BARCO: Meanwhile, Oracene quietly worked as a nurse to support the family. Ellis says she held her own with Richard and coached Serena behind the scenes.

ELLIS: Now people will know the truth of that. I did a movie that was about Black people loving each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KING RICHARD")

ELLIS: (As Oracene Williams) Serena Williams.

DEMI SINGLETON: (As Serena Williams) Come on.

REINALDO MARCUS GREEN: I wanted to make sure we got the tennis right. But to me, I was less interested in making a tennis movie. You know, this was a movie about a family that had tennis in it.

DEL BARCO: Director Reinaldo Marcus Green says their stories were familiar. He grew up in a rough New York neighborhood playing baseball and being coached by his father.

GREEN: My father wore those short shorts. And I understood how a Black man with a big personality could - you know, could be misunderstood for being outspoken. And a father that raised us with love, I uniquely understood those characteristics of Richard.

DEL BARCO: The filmmakers interviewed Oracene Price and used Richard Williams' memoir as a reference. And just before the film's shoot wrapped, Isha Price, Venus and Serena Williams officially signed on as executive producers. Will Smith says their support meant the world.

SMITH: They called me directly after they saw. And Venus said, thank you for telling the world the truth about our daddy.

DEL BARCO: But he's still dying to know Richard Williams' reaction.

SMITH: Serena was like, he says he hasn't seen it yet. We've been trying to get him to watch. And she said, it's not beyond daddy to have watched it and don't tell us (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG, "BE ALIVE")

DEL BARCO: "King Richard" has six Oscars nominations, including the best original song by Beyonce. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE ALIVE")

BEYONCE KNOWLES: It feels so good to be alive. Darling, it's a celebration for you, yeah. I got the tribe all by my side. You're doing everything they said you couldn't do.

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