My stepfather used to play the numbers.
He worked for Ford, including double shifts whenever offered, but he still struggled at times to keep the lights on. To keep the heat on. To feed the three children under his roof. So, he played the numbers, hoping for a lifeline that ultimately never came.
My siblings and I didn’t really know how poor we were, of course. It’s not unusual for kids living in poverty to be unaware of the hell their parents or guardians were catching. But it wasn’t until my son was born that I fully understood what it must’ve felt like for him — as the sole family provider — to sit in our apartment with no lights, no heat and hungry mouths to feed.
This is why I cried while watching “King Richard.”
I can understand the temptation to think of it as a Hollywood biopic about Venus and Serena Williams. And through that lens, I can see why some people were disappointed the film focused more on their father, played by Will Smith, than on the two of them. And if this film were made by people other than Venus and Serena, I might be inclined to agree. But this isn’t the tennis version of “Green Book,” which opted to make the growth of a white driver the focus as opposed to the brilliance of the Black man he was driving — despite the title of the film coming from “The Negro Motorist Green-Book.”
No, for many of us who grew up in the fire but were shielded from the heat, we see “King Richard” as Venus and Serena giving their father, Richard Williams, who suffered a stroke in 2016, his flowers while he’s still alive to hold them. The film is a gift, a cinematic thank-you card, an acknowledgment of a life that may not mean much to others but means everything to them.
At times, the story of “King Richard” feels like a modern-day version of “A Raisin in the Sun,” with Richard assuming the role of Walter Lee Younger. Other moments he takes the proverbial mic from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to deliver a message of his own.
The film does not set out to make him perfect. In fact, there are moments in which he is downright unlikable. But a man can only get sucker punched by life so many times before he starts throwing punches of his own. Sometimes he fights for his own self-esteem. Sometimes he fights so his children don’t have to. But the point is, men like Richard Williams, my stepfather, Walter Lee, James Evans, John Q … they are always fighting.
That’s the story Venus and Serena, who are executive producers of the film, wanted to tell, and I believe it’s a story worth telling.
There is Oscar buzz for Smith and deservedly so. Having spent some time around Richard Williams, I can tell you Smith does an amazing job re-creating his mannerisms and pattern of speech. (Of course, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — an album universally considered to be among the greatest of all time — didn’t win a single Grammy in 1971 so award season isn’t the final word on the merit of art.)
There is a bedtime scene in the film in which Richard looks at his daughters, and he tells them that it won’t always be like this. That is when my tears began to flow.
You must understand this is late 1980s, early 1990s Compton. “King Richard” does not shy away from the drugs and violence prevalent in the neighborhood during that time. There are multiple references about a neighbor’s daughter turning tricks on the corner, probably because of her addiction to crack. Richard himself is bullied, even beaten up by gangbangers in front of the daughters he so desperately wants to protect and yet is often humiliated in his attempts. Sometimes by his own doing.
Both he and Oracene — his wife and the girls’ mother — are working full-time jobs but the only home they can afford is so small that the five girls share a room, doubling up on twin beds. They argue about money, as many struggling couples do. They disagree on discipline. They love as best they can for as long as they can. And yet through it all — the Jim Crow South where he grew up, the pervasive racism, the gangs, the emasculation — Richard was still able to offer hope.
In a world that tried its damnedest to choke it out of him, he found a way to keep it. Share it. Guide him into being a Hall of Fame coach, beyond anyone’s expectations.
The world will never forget Venus and Serena. They will forever be tennis royalty. And because of them, we will also remember Richard — and not just the version many in the media reviled for his odd behavior. But the version who believed, fought, cried … failed. The version many of us who grew up in similar conditions as the Williamses recognize and, most importantly, understand. The version time may very well have forgotten — and the one we never knew — had it not been for “King Richard.”