King Richard tells the story of Venus and Serena Williams and the man who raised them to be Grand Slam champions, Richard Williams (played in the film by Will Smith), a tennis neophyte who created a 78-page plan for his daughters to go pro before they were even born. Focusing on their early days, the film reveals not only what Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) had to overcome to become who they are today, but what the entire Williams family went through on the girls' road to tennis superstardom. It's an incredible true story that could have made for standard biopic fare.
But in writing two of the greatest athletes of all time, screenwriter Zach Baylin looked to another genre, as he reveals while discussing a scene in which the Williams sisters' mother, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), does Venus' hair ahead of her first-ever professional match, fashioning her now-iconic beaded braids.
"Oracene put those beads in their hair, basically, to say, 'Not only do you belong here, but you belong here as young Black women,' and to really own that," Baylin tells A.frame. "In the script, it says something like, 'It feels like Venus is Batman putting on his cape for the first time.' It felt like that superhero moment to us."
When Baylin was hired on to write King Richard, the family had yet to give their blessing to the project. In the meantime, Baylin consumed anything and everything he could about them: books written by Richard and Serena, their coaches, and various sports commentators, news clippings and interview clips. But all the research in the world would never be as valuable as the family themselves. So, with a first draft of Baylin's screenplay—written on spec—he and producer Tim White reached out to the family.
"We were interested in knowing the specifics of their lives, not just the achievements," Baylin says. "And frankly, I knew there were things in that original draft—particularly with Oracene—that were not as nuanced as they could be. I went in really hat in hand and said, 'Look, for this to be a great movie, you are going to need to be involved and walk me into those rooms. Because I wasn't there.'"
The Williamses, in turn, said yes. Venus and Serena signed on as executive producers, as did sister Isha Price, while Lyndrea Price served as a costumer on the movie. As such, Baylin was given the opportunity to mine their memories. Those conversations about what they felt was important and needed to be represented in the movie influenced certain inspirational moments, like the aforementioned beads scene, but the family never shied away from the ugly truth. It was, after all, the truth.
"We sat with Oracene and Isha Price at the U.S. Open in 2018—it was incredible—and there was a scene in the early versions of the script where [Oracene and Richard] got in a fight and the story of Richard's other children was brought up," recalls Baylin. "Oracene read that scene for the first time and was like, 'You guys really want to put this in the movie?' And we said, 'We really think it needs to be. It's a huge part of who he was.' To her credit, she said, 'OK. If this is going to be in the movie, let me tell you how I actually found out about it.' And she told that story. I put it in the script almost verbatim and built the rest of that scene around that."
That desire to write toward the truth was never more important than when tackling the titular king. Neither Baylin nor anyone else involved in the production had any intention of rewriting the Williams patriarch as a saint. Even if they had, Richard, in his years of onscreen appearances as the sisters' coach and self-appointed publicist and the endless stream of outrageous soundbites he dropped along the way, made that an impossibility.
To this day, "I think a lot of people's perception of him is this kind of Svengali-type guy who was very self-serving," Baylin says. Through his research, however, Baylin tapped into the humanity of his subject and discovered what led him to become this larger-than-life character. "He grew up in a small house without electricity or plumbing, and his mother was picking cotton with him as a baby. He had gone through the worst racism [and] the worst poverty you could possibly imagine. Reading about those experiences and the amount of trauma that he went through, [you understand that] he really set his whole life up to rise above that and find some kind of self-respect he felt like he had never been given. All of a sudden, I was like, OK, no matter what this guy does, I'm with him in hoping that he succeeds."
Because it's Will, you stay in his corner a little bit longer than you might if it was somebody else.
"To me, Richard has the most natural dramatic arc. He's someone who came up with a goal for his family that, in part, was very self-serving, and ultimately, he has to hand the narrative over to Venus and Serena," Baylin reasons. It helps, too, having a movie star like Smith portray him. "Obviously, once Will came onboard, he has such a natural charisma that he can be really crass, but because it's Will, you stay in his corner a little bit longer than you might if it was somebody else."
During the 94th Oscar nominations, King Richard was recognized six times over, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Will Smith) and Best Supporting Actress (Aunjanue Ellis). Baylin is up for Best Original Screenplay, becoming an Oscar nominee with his first produced script.
"This movie means everything to me," Baylin says. "If I never made anything else, I would feel very proud and accomplished of this one."