Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in King Richard

HBO’s Oscar contender stars Will Smith as Venus and Serena Williams’ dad. Does it tell the whole story?

A side-by-side showing Richard Williams along with the young Venus and Serena Williams in both the movie and in real life. They look remarkably similar, all clad in tennis gear and with the girls in braids.
1 Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ken Levine /Allsport/Getty Images and Warner Bros.

King Richard is the origin story of the tennis superhero team that is Venus and Serena Williams. However, its focus is not the two sisters but their father, Richard Williams (portrayed by Will Smith in a performance that’s made him the early favorite for this year’s Best Actor Oscar), who armed only with unshakeable determination, a firm belief in his family’s destiny, and a bucketload of motivational slogans, brought his daughters from the run-down courts of Compton to domination of the junior tournament circuit, fighting race-based preconceptions in the overwhelmingly white world of tennis the whole way. Williams was known for his unconventional approach to building the sisters’ careers—for example by taking them off the junior circuit and not letting them play matches until they turned pro—ready to challenge the coaches’ advice whether on shot technique or sneaker endorsements. Although made with the cooperation of the family (Venus and Serena are executive producers), the film does not shy away from presenting how stubborn Richard could be, though it allows his gambles to always pay off. Below, we’ve consulted decades of news articles, along with Richard and Serena Williams’ own memoirs, to look at how much is myth-making and how much the reality.

Richard Williams’ Early Coaching of Venus and Serena

Both young girls wear braids and pink tennis outfits. The real-life Williams has a graffitoed wall behind her.
A young Venus Williams both in real life and in the movie, as played by Saniyya Sidney. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ken Levine /Allsport/Getty Images and Warner Bros.
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We see the young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) hitting balls on the Compton court at night as the rain buckets down. A neighbor says she’s going to call social services on Richard for making the girls play in such terrible weather.

In fact, the sisters were expected to start as early as 6 a.m. and then return after school, playing until dark in all weather (though in Southern California drenching thunderstorms are a pretty rare occurrence), sometimes not allowed to leave until they had returned 500 volleys. In the film, Richard wants them to practice in the rain because the balls won’t bounce as well. It’s not clear if this specific episode ever happened, but Richard certainly employed comparable practices. “Half the time he wouldn’t want new balls, he would use bad balls so the girls would have to run faster and bend lower,” the girls’ coach, Rick Macci, recalled. His techniques also included throwing a beer bottle to the back of the court to stop the girls from going too far back during matches. “The one thing I knew Venus and Serena had is they’d run over broken glass to get a ball. There were a few times Richard put broken glass on the court,” Macci said. “The glass was behind the baseline, back by the fence, so they wouldn’t back up and take the ball early.”

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By Richard’s own admission, some neighbors did call child protective services on the grounds that the Williamses were making Venus and Serena practice tennis for too long and spend too much time studying. “Someone even called the police on me for abusing my kids,” Richard recalled in his memoir Black and White: The Way I See It. As in the film, the investigation came to nothing when the girls stoutly defended their parents, who pointed out they were keeping the girls immersed in training to keep them too busy to be tempted by the neighborhood’s less virtuous activities.

Did Richard Fight a Gang Harassing Venus and Serena?

Both wear tennis shirts and skirts and smiles, with their hair braided and tied back in tight cornrows converging at the back of her head.
A young Serena Williams in real life (left) and as played by Demi Singleton in King Richard. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ken Levine /Allsport/Getty Images and Warner Bros.
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As the girls play on a tennis court, a gang starts trash-talking their older sister, Yetunde. Richard storms over and tells him off, creating bad blood, with the gang hanging around the court menacingly. One night after practice as Richard is gathering tennis balls, they beat him mercilessly.

By all accounts this actually happened. Describing the court in her memoir On the Line, Serena recalled the courts at Tragniew Park “were in sorry shape. There was broken glass every here and there. Cracks in the cement. Weeds poking through. Soda cans, beer bottles, fast-food wrappers. … Wasn’t exactly Center Court at Roland Garros, but it was all we knew.” She also writes of hearing gunfire as they played.

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Richard, meanwhile, says in Black and White that while at first he tried to negotiate with the gang, as shown in the film, they weren’t interested. When he wouldn’t leave the courts, they beat him up, breaking his nose, jaw, and fingers and knocking out several of his teeth, with Richard writing, “To this day [I] wear my ‘toothlessness’ as a badge of courage.”

The movie’s depiction of the gangs eventually becoming proud of Venus and Serena’s success and protecting them from any outsiders who hassled them is also accurate. “They would surround the court, they wanted the girls to do well,” former Compton City Councilwoman Patricia Moore said.

Did Richard See a Gang Member Shot in Front of Him?

After the beating, Richard takes the gun he has access to in his job as a security guard and goes hunting for the gang leader. When the gang leader goes into a fast food restaurant, Richard takes out his gun and seems to be preparing to shoot but then a car comes out of nowhere and shoots the gangbanger in a drive-by.

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According to Richard’s memoir, he did start taking a 12-gauge pump shotgun (not his gun from work) to the courts, which made the gang scatter. Unlike the film, he never had a member in his sights with the intention to shoot. Instead, he writes, he went in pursuit of the gang members but decided to return home in his Volkswagen van when he couldn’t find any. On the way home, he saw that one of the gang members who had beat him was lying dead in the street, surrounded by police cars and ambulances.

Even though Richard is depicted as being so protective of his family and determined to keep them off the mean streets, in fact the Williamses had the money to move out of the neighborhood. Venus spent her first three years in sleepy Long Beach, California before Richard deliberately moved the family to Compton, over the objections of his wife, because he believed the tough environment would give the girls a fighter’s mentality. “What led me to Compton was my belief that the greatest champions came out of the Ghetto,” he wrote. “I had studied sports successes like Muhammad Ali and great thinkers like Malcolm X. I saw where they came from.” He also told CNN, “There was no place in the world that was rougher than Compton. The ghetto will make you rough, it’ll make you tough, it’ll make you strong. And so that’s why I went to Compton with them.”

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[Read: King Richard Turns Venus and Serena’s Triumph Into Their Dad’s]

And, as if the gangs and sound of gunfire weren’t providing enough of a hostile environment, Williams also hired school children to surround the courts to heckle Venus and Serena (not shown in the film), with the idea that the jeers would toughen the girls up. “Criticism can bring the best out of you,” he told CNN in that same interview. It was his way of preparing his daughters for the boos they might (and did) encounter from white crowds at tournaments.

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By a terrible irony, Venus and Serena’s half-sister Yetunde Price (played by Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew in King Richard) was killed by gunfire in Compton in 2003.

Did Richard Write a Plan for His Daughters’ Success Before They Were Even Born?

Richard goes to the country club where Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn)—John McEnroe and Pete Sampras’s coach—is holding practice sessions. He persuades Cohen to watch the girls hit a few balls and tells the coach he wrote a 78-page plan to make them champions before they were born. He later says the same thing to Macci.

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This matches Williams’ own accounts. Watching the French Open by chance on TV in 1980, he saw the winner receive a $40,000 check, prompting him to tell his wife Oracene “Brandy” Williams (played by Aunjanue Ellis in the movie), “We’ll have two kids, and we’ll become rich. They’re going to be tennis players.” He has also said that, because at first Brandy wasn’t on board with the program, he plied her with romantic dinners and, less charmingly, hid her birth-control pills. The 78-page plan followed after Williams immersed himself in tennis magazines, watched tennis videos to learn to play the game, and joined a tennis club.

Pulling Venus and Serena Off the Junior Tournament Circuit

Both men are clad in white, in long brown hair and with thick fuzz-caterpillar mustaches.
Rick Macci in real life, left, and as played by Jon Bernthal in King Richard, right. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ken Levine /Allsport and Warner Bros.
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After teenage tennis prodigy Jennifer Capriati is arrested for possession of marijuana and is appearing increasingly vulnerable to burnout, Richard pulls Venus and Serena off the junior circuit even though Venus is storming up the rankings and being approached by agents, declaring they won’t play any more tournaments until they turn pro. Macci (along with everyone else) objects strenuously but Richard stands his ground, telling the coach, “They’re going to be kids.”

Williams did indeed make this bold move. Legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri recalled that “They all thought Richard was crazy. But he did something no one else did. He kept them back from tournaments and taught them technique and to go for it.”

Did Richard and Venus Turn Down a Nike Deal?

When Venus enters her first pro tournament, the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland, at 14, she receives an offer of a $3 million contract from Nike, who want to build a brand around her. Once again taking a contrarian view, Richard says they’re not going to accept the first offer they receive, although Macci, who brokered the deal, warns him that if Venus loses, the offers may dry up. Venus makes it to the second round before narrowly losing to the world No. 2.*

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Richard did walk away from the Nike deal but was vindicated seven months later when Reebok signed Venus to a five-year endorsement deal for a reported $12 million, an unprecedented amount for a relative newcomer. “Richard said he wasn’t going to do anything right then,” Williams’ lawyer Keven Davis, who actually brokered the Nike deal, recalled. “I thought he was taking a serious gamble. He proved us all wrong.”

Does Venus Really Speak Four Languages?

Richard tells Macci that the girls’ education comes first and that Venus speaks four languages because “Venus don’t want to be broke.”

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While in junior high, Williams, a straight-A student, studied French and German, later learning Italian, which in 2019 she described as “my best language,” adding “the surprising language that I know a decent amount of is Chinese.”

How Many Children Does Richard Have Anyway?

She wears a big smile in both photos, surrounded by her daughters
Oracene “Brandy” Williams in real life, left, and as played by Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard, right. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Al Bello/Getty Images and Warner Bros.
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Richard and Brandy have a big fight during which Brandy says Richard seems to think he’s created the girls’ success all by himself, ignoring the crucial role she’s played. When Richard walks out of the room, she reminds him that that’s what he does—walk away from failed businesses and his other kids, recalling her surprise when a long-lost son of Richard’s turned up.

Richard had more than one long-lost son. He actually had five children—three boys and two girls—from an earlier marriage in 1965. Although in the film he repeatedly tells his family with Brandy (Venus and Serena plus Brandy’s three daughters from her earlier marriage) that he will always be there for them and will not abandon them the way his father did him, in reality he walked away from his first family when all five children were under eight and had no further contact with them subsequently. “I was eight when my dad left and said he was getting a bike for me and that’s the last I saw of him. My mom told me later that he’s never coming back. We went from having everything to nothing,” his eldest daughter Sabrina told Britain’s Sun tabloid in 2020, adding, “He’s not a dad, he was just a sperm donor. He had five kids, and left them to my mom to grow up in poverty, and never once helped.” Moreover, Sabrina maintained, she was told she has “between fifteen and nineteen” half-siblings “all over the place, from LA to Louisiana.” After Brandy and Richard divorced in 2002, he married a woman named Lakeisha Juanita Graham, one year older than Venus, with whom he had a son in 2012, though they have since divorced.

Correction, Nov. 22, 2021: This article originally misstated that Venus Williams makes it to the final of the Bank of the West Classic before losing to the world No. 2. She loses to the world No. 2 in the second round.

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