Raising Our Voices: How the ‘King Richard’ Crew Supported Black Girl Power
Reinaldo Marcus Green, Kris Bowers and Carla Farmer channeled their personal inspiration from witnessing young Venus and Serena Williams' rise to trace the tale of how two Black girls from Compton became American legends.
This story is about what came before the Grand Slams and gold medals.
King Richard is a look at Venus and Serena Williams’ prelude to tennis superstardom, buoyed by an ultra-supportive family network led by the unrelenting drive and vision of their parents. Will Smith is a producer of the movie and stars as Richard Williams, who infamously drafted a 78-page plan to take his girls — Venus is played by Saniyya Sidney and Serena by Demi Singleton — from running drills on Compton tennis courts to volleying with the world’s best at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and beyond.
“The most dangerous creature on this whole earth is a woman who knows how to think,” Richard reminds his daughters. Equal parts biopic, family melodrama and sports drama, director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is the rare Hollywood product that places the efforts and inherent value of young Black girls at its center. King Richard does not shy away from the microaggressions — and outright racism — that the Williams family faced, reminding audiences of the precarious and rarefied position the girls were placed in before they could even drive a car. Richard later explains point-blank: “You’re going to be representing every little Black girl on earth.”
Given the singularity of a project like King Richard, and the real-life figures it portrays, the team behind the film found themselves doubly committed to the story and its telling. To re-create the Williams sisters’ origin story, Green, composer Kris Bowers and hair department head Carla Farmer each pulled from their memories of watching the tennis stars’ rise as well as their own personal histories, both in Hollywood and outside of it.
In addition to the trio of artists highlighted here, King Richard was brought to the screen by a crew populated with veteran and up-and-coming Black talent. Alongside Wynn Thomas — Spike Lee’s longtime collaborator who has been recognized as the first Black production designer in American filmmaking, with credits like Malcolm X and Hidden Figures — the film features a 1990s period wardrobe from costume designer Sharen Davis, twice Oscar-nominated for Ray and Dreamgirls and an Emmy winner for HBO’s Watchmen. And the Williams sisters themselves serve as executive producers on the film.
THR‘s Raising Our Voices salutes the cast and crew of King Richard and their passion in bringing the journey of a pair of real-life American heroines to the big screen.
THR’s Raising Our Voices series, presented by Walmart, focuses on emerging filmmakers and artisans from backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood. The featured individuals have been selected by THR editors from 2021’s most critically acclaimed films.
Hair Department Head
For Farmer, King Richard fell squarely at the intersection of personal and professional. “It’s an important story for the culture,” explains the hairstylist. “And hair is a big thing in our culture.”
An occasional tennis fan, the Virginia-born Farmer, who grew up splitting her time between Pasadena and Seattle, became invested in the sport when she began seeing “this beautiful young Black woman [Venus Williams] coming through the ranks.” And when Will Smith was looking to tell Venus and her sister Serena’s origin story, he turned to his longtime hair and makeup artists Pierce Austin and Judy Murdock for a referral. They recommended their friend and colleague Farmer, who since the late 1990s has styled plenty of Black royalty in film and TV, including Whitney Houston and Brandy in the beloved 1997 telepic adaptation of Cinderella (for which she received an Emmy nomination) and Coming 2 America earlier this year.
Throughout their careers, hair has been an avenue through which the Williams sisters have expressed their identity. One of their more iconic looks is re-created near the end of King Richard, when Venus squares off against U.S. Open champ Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, walking onto the court for only the second professional game of her career with a head full of dazzling white beads braided into her hair. “They are so known for it,” explains Farmer of the adornments that became the sisters’ signature throughout the late ’90s. “It was who they were as young women and who they represented. They weren’t only African American girls, but they were African American girls from Compton.”
On the production, Farmer found herself walking the line between ensuring authenticity and meeting the demands of a time-constrained, COVID-era project. Braided looks that could take up to eight hours were completed in 45 minutes, with the stylists using half-wigs to blend into real hair. Because the story required intense tennis sequences, the looks had to withstand athletic activity and be replicable for actors and their stand-ins: “We had doubles, triples, fourples.” It was important to Farmer that audiences, especially those knowledgeable about Black hairstyles, remain fully immersed in the story: “I wanted [viewers] to watch that movie and not be like, ‘Oh, that’s a wig.’ “
Within the industry, there has been discussion about the need to diversify the hair and makeup trailer. Farmer’s team, which could range from six to 10 people depending on the shooting day, was majority people of color. “The eye is different,” says the department head, who brought in many of the colleagues she worked with on Netflix’s blaxploitation period feature Dolemite Is My Name. “When you’re in the culture, you know how it should look.”
For Farmer, King Richard engenders a special pride that goes well beyond hair: “The one thing I’m most proud of is seeing a Black family being so unapologetically Black and with excellence.”
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“My parents watched tennis because they watched Venus and Serena,” says Bowers, who grew up in the 1990s in Los Angeles, both in Inglewood and then the Crenshaw-adjacent Mid-City. “I was aware of their magnitude of being kids, and also being kids from L.A.”
It was when he was first reading the script for King Richard that Bowers found himself thinking about his own parents. He drew parallels between Richard Williams’ and his own father’s ambitions for their children. “He decided before I was born, he wanted me to play piano,” says the composer and pianist. “He sat behind me every day while I practiced. He talked to all of my teachers, and basically learned about music as he was doing it.”
For his part, Bowers identified with the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena were publicly navigating and succeeding in what had always been an exceedingly white sport — “young Black women in a space where they’re never seen,” as Bowers puts it — while the musician explored his own place in the predominantly white world of composition in the 2021 Oscar-nominated documentary short A Concerto Is a Conversation, which looks at his family lineage and his career. “Lately, I have been wondering whether I am supposed to be in the spaces I am in,” he says aloud in the doc while talking to his grandfather, who grew up in the Jim Crow-era South.
Bowers holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard in jazz studies, and early in his career worked on tracks from acts like Jay-Z and A Tribe Called Quest. He later segued into composing for the screen, attending the Sundance Film Composers Lab at Skywalker Sound in 2015 and amassing such credits as Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Netflix hit Bridgerton and Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. Bowers previously collaborated with King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green on the 2018 Sundance feature Monsters and Men, and dove into this movie shortly after working on Space Jam: A New Legacy.
In the King Richard score, a “big character,” as Bowers describes it, is the prepared piano — a piano that has its sound altered by placing various objects between or on the strings. Putty, clothespins, ping-pong balls and felt decorated the interior of Bowers’ piano, with a box of nails creating sounds akin to a snare drum. He pulled from the soundscape of his own childhood in L.A., collecting inspiration from the ’90s discographies of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and N.W.A as well as the back-and-forth rhythms of a tennis match. “The balls also become a musical instrument,” explains Bowers. He would find himself “writing around where the ball hitting the net [was] going to be a downbeat.”
The story of King Richard has become even more personal for Bowers in recent months, as he prepares to welcome his first child, a daughter. He’s looking forward to sharing the movie with audiences as a cinematic look at everything that goes into rearing prodigious talents. “There’s this myth that people are born with some gift, and somehow the world just orients itself to make that happen for them,” says Bowers. “I’m so excited for people just to see what it takes for us to have a Venus and Serena.” Or a Kris Bowers.
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REINALDO MARCUS GREEN
Filmmaking is Green’s third career. Armed with a master’s in education, his first act was teaching elementary school, and his second was serving as director of educational programming at financial behemoth AIG, in the firm’s fledgling diversity and inclusion department. “Of course, once the financial crisis hit in 2008, the first thing they cut was the diversity department,” Green says.
While his particular job survived the downsizing, the experience left him feeling put off by Wall Street, at which point he looked to the career of his older brother, filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green. “The stories he was telling were our stories, the stories I had experienced as a kid, about our family and our community,” the Bronx-born, Staten Island-raised Green says of Rashaad’s filmography, which includes 2011 standout Gun Hill Road. “I was like, ‘Wait, we can do that? We can tell our stories, and someone is going to care?’ ”
Heading into NYU’s graduate film program, Green’s desire was to be a producer, hoping to work alongside his brother. “[I] thought we could be The Green Brothers,” he says. But the first short film he made was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival in competition, convincing him he should be a director, and his second premiered at Sundance, earning him representation by WME’s Craig Kestel, who had signed Ryan Coogler and Cary Fukunaga based on their early short work.
Green credits filmmaker labs out of festivals like Sundance, Tribeca and San Francisco with helping him find his footing in the industry, leading to his debut feature, Monsters and Men, in 2018. The interwoven narrative was inspired by the police killing of Eric Garner and stars John David Washington and Anthony Ramos; it earned him a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for outstanding first feature. After the film’s festival premiere, Green got a call from Spike Lee, who asked to screen the movie in his class. “That was a full-circle moment for me,” says Green, who had been a regular at Lee’s NYU office hours as his student.
When Green read the screenplay for King Richard, which he’d received from multiple parties who thought he would be a good fit for the project, he saw connections to his own family and his athletic past. “In his mind, he was raising major leaguers,” says Green of his own father’s baseball ambitions for his sons. Green would eventually play baseball in college, securing two major league tryouts; as a former aspiring pro athlete, the director knew he could bring a perspective to the movie that others could not.
After meeting with King Richard‘s producers, including Will Smith, and Warner Bros., Green got the job, diving into preproduction and thinking about what the project should (and should not) be. “This isn’t a ‘We got out of Compton’ story,” he says. “This is a ‘We are from Compton’ story.” The director also knew that, despite the title, the movie was about more than a single man’s mission. “It was Richard’s plan, but it took the family to execute that plan,” says Green, who had particularly impactful conversations with family matriarch Oracene Price (played by Aunjanue Ellis). Venus and Serena’s half-sisters were not only portrayed onscreen in King Richard, but Isha served as an executive producer and Lyndrea as a costumer, as well. This type of family participation is emblematic of the girls’ upbringing.
“Five Black girls in a VW bus?” Green says of Richard and Oracene ferrying their daughters around town, one of his film’s recurring sequences. “Now that is an interesting story.”
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This story first appeared in the Nov. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.