'King Richard' serves up something seldom seen

COACHING: Richard Williams (Will Smith) watches on as Venus (Saniyya Sidney) plays tennis in “King Richard.” Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

Will Smith plays a part in "King Richard," the new film about Venus and Serena Williams's father, that viewers rarely get to see: a Black dad who breaks down - and explains why.

Smith's Richard cries not for his daughters, then-budding tennis greats, or for the mainstream media constantly questioning his unconventional 78-page plan for their success, or for the final scores that proved him right all along. He cries for himself.

"Having grown up in a Black household, we're conditioned to not show our emotions. We can't show fear. We're not allowed to express ourselves in that way," director Reinaldo Marcus Green told The Washington Post. It is that cultural and historical context, Green said, that makes the moment so powerful.

In the crucial scene, Richard is explaining why he (against the advice of basically every "expert") barred a young Venus from competing on the junior tennis circuit. His goal was to protect her from burnout both physical and spiritual, but eventually Venus was ready, and her dad had to let go.

To justify the methods to his madness, Williams reaches back to his childhood in Shreveport, La. He tells his daughter the story of when his father abandoned him to a White mob, leaving the little boy to be beaten. That moment, he explains, solidified his very particular approach to parenting. "Now I haven't been no great daddy, but I never done nothing but try to protect you. I just never wanted you to look up and see your daddy running away," he says through tears, delivering the film's emotional punch in the gut.

The exchange marks not just a pivotal moment in "King Richard" but cinema as a whole. For once, a Black man - a father - gets to tap into his own generational trauma while also overcoming it.

Images of Black fathers are everywhere. There are the stern, real-life stage dads, like Earl Woods, Joe Jackson and, of course, Williams himself, who we see in documentaries and network interviews. The unflappable prototypes, such as former president Barack Obama and (for a time) Bill Cosby. The aspirational small-screen dads in Cliff Huxtable and Uncle Phil. Even the gruesome, grainy videos of Black men dying show us fathers: George Floyd had a daughter and so did Philando Castile. All of these men contribute to the constant running feed of Black fatherhood consumed either on the 6 o'clock news, appointment television or in award-winning roles.

Black fathers on-screen are as pixelated as they are petrified. Together they create a sculpture carved in stereotypical stone that falls apart from constant chiseling. And yet there is one statistic that consistently gets used as a shorthand for the entire group.

According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013, more than 72% of births to non-Hispanic Black women were to unwed mothers. It's a dire statistic. But the number, which has been picked apart repeatedly, does not reflect how involved Black fathers are in their children's day-to-day lives.

Additional CDC data released the same year showed that Black fathers were in fact the most involved in their children's lives, regardless of their marital status. But the havoc that 72 percent statistic created still exists, furthering a mythology of the always-absentee father, and doing none of the work unpacking the why's and how's behind the number.

Those are the questions documentary filmmaker Jordan Thierry sought to answer in his 2006 film, "The Black Fatherhood Project." Thierry's goal was to "counter the negative stereotype of Black fathers" that have been pervasive since the advent of modern media, which paints them as either disappeared, overly stern or emotionally unavailable.

"The perception of us is so limited," Thierry said. "Many of the films with big platforms fit into the White-gaze archetype of what they want to see of Black people struggling or overcoming. That is part of our story but not all."

Recent prominent roles in film and television - such as Anthony Anderson's modern dad in "Black-ish," Mahershala Ali as the other father in "Moonlight" and Kevin Hart as a single dad in "Fatherhood" - have made progress with their diverse depictions of what it means to be a contemporary Black father. So on one side of the coin, you have a portrayal like Lawrence Fishburne's no-nonsense single father literally called Furious in "Boyz n the Hood," and on the other, someone like Smith's own struggling but light Christopher in "The Pursuit of Happyness."

But one of the best films to delve into the psychology of Black parenting as it relates to racial and childhood trauma is 2016′s "Fences." The movie, set in 1950s Pittsburgh, follows garbage collector Troy (Denzel Washington) and his family as they navigate the daily limitations of their lives. Washington's character, who is not an easy man, delivers one of the most poignant Black dad monologues when his younger son asks point blank, "How come you ain't never liked me?"

"Like you? Who the hell said I got to like you?" asks Troy, whose own father was awful. "It's my job. It's my responsibility! A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you're my son. Not because I like you - 'cause it's my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you."

It was one of the first times that the inner turmoil of Black fatherhood was laid bare on screen - which is particularly notable considering that almost two decades before, Washington played a much different type of Black father on screen, the unsettled Jake Shuttlesworth in "He Got Game." Smith's take on Richard is the beneficiary of all those roles.

"Richard embodies the kind of tireless commitment, tenacious advocacy and occasionally confrontational style that generations of African American parents have had to adopt to secure their kids a seat at the table that, all these decades later, still hasn't been set for them," Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote in her review.

"King Richard" (now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max) lets the audience see behind the curtain in that explainer scene, which as it so happens, almost didn't happen. It was all Smith's idea.

The actor had read Richard Williams's 2014 memoir, "Black and White: The Way I See It," in which the famed tennis dad and coach recounts the tale of his father abandoning him.

"Will came to me and he said, 'I want to tell this story,'" said screenwriter Zach Baylin.

The night that scene was shot was a fraught one, according to Green, the film's director. "There were lots of things happening with Will that night," he said. There was the emotional turmoil of embodying the outsize character himself, the toil of filming and, of course, Smith's own complicated relationship with his father, which he recently delved into in his new memoir, "Will." Green said "there was no direction to cry," but that "it just happened and it was beautiful. It was something that you rarely see."

"For some folks, they don't like to see their heroes crying, and they don't like to see someone that is so manly break down. And that's what I think makes [the scene] so special. [Richard's] able to go to a vulnerable place," said Marcus.

Baylin agreed that Smith's collaboration helped bring Richard's character full circle.

"That story that Will found really locked in just thematically what we wanted to say about his trauma and the way he looked at fatherhood," said Baylin, whose initial script for "King Richard" landed at the No. 2 spot on the 2018 Black List, an annual catalogue of the best unproduced scripts. Baylin became obsessed with Williams after learning for himself that the brash sports-dad persona Richard presented to the rest of the world in the '90s was a far cry from the father he was off-camera with his five daughters.

The same can be said for the preconceived notions audiences being entertained in theaters or at home watching the news have about Black fathers in general. Richard is present and protective. He is militaristic when he needs to be and cancels practice for an impromptu trip to Disneyland. But he did have those girls hitting balls in the rain. He is neither stereotypical nor perfect. That nuance, those added layers, are what make Smith's performance as Richard not only rare but necessary.

"Everything in [Richard's] life was an effort to stand up and say, 'I deserve respect, I belong here,'" said Baylin. "I had so much empathy for him and I thought that if the audience could understand that, then all preconceptions they had of Richard would fall away."

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