This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose latest film is “King Richard,” which takes a closer look at Richard Williams, father of tennis greats Venus and Serena. Green’s other films include “Monsters and Men” and “Joe Bell.” Green tells The Treatment about the personal connection he felt to the story, growing up with an eye on playing major league baseball. He says it was important that the film show the pride the Williams family felt in their home in Compton, California. And Green says he believes Richard Williams was ahead of his time in his approach to not pushing his daughters to the edge of burning out.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest today, Reinaldo Marcus Green, made an enormous splash for his debut feature "Monsters and Men" at Sundance in 2018. He followed that with “Joe Bell,” and his newest feature, which I guess we’ve probably all heard about by now, is "King Richard" starring Will Smith. It feels like there's almost this schism between dramatic truth and real truth that you're getting at in your films.
Reinaldo Marcus Green: I watch a lot of documentaries, and I think I always have responded to real life stories. It's just what I gravitate towards. I was a history major in college; I read lots of nonfiction. I think it has permeated itself in my filmmaking in a lot of ways. It's just my interest level in real life subjects.
KCRW: It really is kind of about: are we watching fiction, or are we watching real people? But also, there's a kind of truth of the drama we want to feel in the moment that may not always hue to what the "history" is, and just playing with that line, and it's so much a part actually, in a big way, of “King Richard.”
Green: Yes. I mentioned before that I love documentaries, but the problem for me in being a documentary filmmaker is that I can't change the truth in a lot of ways. It is what it is, and in [fictional] film, you can take certain liberties, so you can live within the truth, but you can also exaggerate, or you can change your fate, if you will, in certain circumstances. And so at least within "Monsters and Men," the truth of the matter is: it's very different than how we might be able to perceive our own future. If we can see ourselves sometimes in a certain light, then maybe we can achieve that. If you're never able to see yourself or put yourself in a certain situation, then maybe you can't.
And so in "King Richard," you're telling the life of the Williams family in a compressed two and a half hours. We have to be able to tell this story in a dramatic way, in a way that enhances the drama, but also tries to be as truthful to what we know about the family as humanly possible. There are many, many different ways to shoot Compton in the ‘80s. There are many different ways to show Compton in the early ‘90s. And this was my way. Yes, they struggled. Yes, they came from a rough neighborhood, but it's more of the backdrop. So when you see the police presence in the neighborhood, it's not as in your face as maybe another filmmaker might have put it in.
I think it was more important to remain in the perspective of the family. The family was insulated. They were in their own pocket. They were in their own bubble. And they also saw their community as a beautiful one. So yes, Richard, in the opening scene, is sweeping up glass from the court, but it's subtle. We're not doing a cutaway of the glass and the broken bottles in the beer cans. It is part of life, but it's not something that we're hopefully beating the audience over the head with.
It's important to show Black excellence in the house because it was small; it was modest; it was theirs. It was important to me to show that growing up as a Black and Latino male. My mother grew up one of eight in a one bedroom tenement in the South Bronx. I knew what those spaces were like, but it was theirs. And it was modest. And it was neat, and it was organized. And there was food on the table every single night. I wanted to just represent that sort of love, that sort of pride of where you're from. Those things are important to me to showcase and in the film, and hopefully, it's done tastefully.
KCRW: For you conceptually creating spaces that are safe for people versus spaces that are not, has been key in all three of these films, hasn't it?
Green: Yes, for sure. Some of it is inherent in the scripts and the circumstances in which our characters have to go through, but specifically with "King Richard," when Richard Williams is at the court, he does face certain elements from the neighborhood that show that it wasn't the safest place to grow up. There was a lot of gang violence. There is one interaction, the first interaction on the court where you can see, through the family's perspective, what it was like going to the court every day and how unsafe or safe that it was for the girls to be practicing in that environment. And so we see that come full circle in our film, from the very first interaction to the very last interaction where those same gang members are also providing protection for the family because of the success that the girls have had. And because they're now championing those girls being from that community, it's important to see all of that in the film.
I think it goes to show that this is not a “get out of Compton” story. This is an "I am from Compton" story. I am a product of my environment. I am proud to be from that environment. Yes, there were things that happened to us in that environment. But guess what? There's good and bad in each community. And it doesn't matter whether it's Beverly Hills, or our hills, there's two sides to every story. And I think it's important to show both sides of that in our film.
KCRW: Just thinking about the sequence when the Rodney King incident is on the news, which reminds us what the world is like, and in some ways it's kind of this quantum shift and in a lot of ways it’s not. I also was thinking about that video incident in "Monsters and Men." That idea of: where do you stand and how safe are you once you step outside of your home and then what that means for people of color?
Green: With "Monsters and Men," we don't show what was on that video. And it's really about the reaction between Manny, played by Anthony Ramos, Dennis, played by John David Washington, and Zyrick, played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr, how three of their lives were impacted by one video and what they're seeing and how each perspective sets you in: what would you do if you were in that situation? And similarly, fast forward to "King Richard," thinking about the Rodney King video and thinking about how relevant that video is today, still, 30 years later, it just immediately puts you and puts everyone in the audience into a place and time in history and allows you as an audience member to realize, I can completely understand as a Black man what his family must have been going through seeing that video.
It's not the same for everybody. And then Richard's reaction right after that is: what do I do? How do I respond to the world at large? And in the very next scene, he does something that's very unorthodox because I think it is weighing on his consciousness. It's everything that he's been feeling up to that point, what's going on with junior tennis, what's happening with my daughters, how do I allow them to operate within this space, and then that video happens.
KCRW: What was the deciding factor for you in doing this?
Green: Well, this one felt the most personal out of all my movies. "Monsters and Men" I wrote. I used to deliver a pizza in Staten Island where Eric Garner got killed. My father worked for the Department of Investigation. My brother went to Dartmouth. And so all of the characters in "Monsters and Men" were built off of an amalgamation of my life in a lot of ways in the community in which I grew up in. And then it was an ode to "Do the Right Thing," which was one of my favorite movies.
As personal as that movie was, I felt more connected to this one. And the reason is: I grew up in a single parent household with my father and my older brother. And my dad thought he was raising Major League Baseball players. The first third of my life, I spent on a baseball diamond. My very first outfit was a New York Mets onesie. Knowing what it was like growing up with a father that essentially pushed baseball, but he did it in a way very similar to Richard Williams. He did it with love. He never missed a game. He was always there. He always preached education as much as he did the sport. And so yes, when baseball no longer worked out for us--I had two major league tryouts that didn't make it--at least I had an education. I had that piece of paper that I could fall back on. We were able to find a way, and we weren't defined by losing in the sport or not making it as baseball players.
And I think similarly, Richard Williams did that with his daughters, not only Venus and Serena, which obviously are the the two that we know, but in our film, it's important to know that there were five sisters. And I think it's important to know that because it takes an incredible effort of the family to do what the Williams family did.
Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Oracene [Williams], is just completely another dimension to our story. I think a lot of people are unaware that the mother was working full time not only to provide the food, but cook the food. She was also full time coaching. And so it's not just hey, mom is there in the background. No, mom is there as the spine of this 78-page plan. Yeah, it's Richard's idea. But Mom is helping to execute that. The older sisters are picking up balls and hanging signs and there to support their younger sisters, not only in practice, but there during the games. And that's how close this family unit is. And I think that is so important to see a Black family who weren't divided and didn't have this infighting and truly bonded together to make arguably two of the greatest athletes of all time.
KCRW: There's that great scene with Tony Goldwyn when he's basically telling [Richard] you are crazy to take your daughters off this circuit. But this is somebody who realized back when nobody was thinking that way that you could burn your kids out by making them play until they were able to play pro. I've interviewed Serena before and she said, Yeah, everybody thought he was crazy, except for him. But it's the reason that we're still playing, because he gave us that time off and it didn't kill us.
Green: I believe that Richard was truly ahead of his time, and his unique understanding of what his daughters needed at that time was just something that nobody else was doing. He had such conviction in the decision to do that. The gall, the moxie in order to make that decision was crazy. It could have been detrimental to the girls, and it wasn't. Fast forward to today, and they're both still at the top of their game with years left to play.
There's no other way to look at it besides Richard being ahead of his time and making decisions that seemed outright insane at the time and now in retrospect look like maybe we should all be pulling our kids out. Maybe we should all take them out of all these extracurricular classes and [stop] beating them up with AP chemistry classes in fourth grade. Maybe we're doing too much to force our children to live the lives that we want to live for them as opposed to them living their own lives, and I think it shines light on that for a lot of parents. I know it did for me, and I'm certainly looking at my own parenting skills saying, maybe I should take a page or two out of their book.
KCRW: Talking about what Compton looks like, especially the beginning of the film, that grass is kind of like faded Kodachrome. It's not ultra-saturated colors, it's not de-saturated. It just sort of looks how faded photographs look in very subtle ways, rather than doing sepia tone. It's like we're looking at the past in real time.
Green: We talked a lot about color. We talked a lot about composition; we talked a lot about design and spaces. Wynn Thomas, who did the production design for us, was able to find certain streets in Compton and the neighboring towns and South Central that gave us access for the storytelling. He's one of the preeminent Black production designers in the world, and so for me to get him was very important because of what he was able to do and using the real Williams family house as a jumping off point for discussion.
This being my first studio film, I was adamant I had to shoot in a real house because it exists. And he was like, you know, that house is really small, you might want to give yourself a little bit more room; we might want to find a bigger house to allow the cameras to come in there. So, I took his advice, and rightfully so. There are a lot of fences that were on all of these blocks because they were protecting the houses, but in terms of storytelling, sometimes fences get in the way. And so when Oracene's character walks across the street, she doesn't have to go through a tremendous number of fences across the street, so we looked at a lot of that and tried to stay truthful to what it was, at the time, take certain liberties for the storytelling to give us access, to give actors places to move.
And then I'll mention Robert Elswit's cinematography and his style. We had a great marriage because I have very naturalistic styling, and he was able to help elevate a lot of the imagery. It feels super simple, but it's very complicated to do what he does. And I think that's the beauty of great cinematography is making it invisible. And hopefully, all of these things feel invisible.
KCRW: Aunjanue is incredible just because she does as much with silence as she does with dialogue. There's a scene after they have to deal with police and a social worker being called to the home by a jealous neighbor, and she walks across the street to deal with a neighbor. There's no shouting; there's no screaming. She has only a few lines of dialogue. But we get as much from her walk over there as the walk back.
Green: What I learned from "Monsters and Men" was that silence speaks volumes. There was a lot of silence in "Monsters and Men," and I think it allows you to sit with the characters and make decisions with them, and be thinking what they're thinking without saying a lot. And so we did a lot of stripping out dialogue in order to land on those moments.
Look, when you have an actress that's as formidable as Aunjanue Ellis, everything her eyes are telling you is enough. Actually, I was so fortunate to see the movie in a theater with an audience, and everybody got up and clapped at that moment. It was a real movie moment. And I definitely wanted to see it with a Black audience. Everybody was like, “Go ahead, girl!” I just loved it. I just was like, wow, this is how I remember watching movies as a kid. And now I have people reacting to my movie and Aunjanue and literally clapping, and we didn't get to the end of the movie yet. They were so engrossed in what she's doing in that decision. And that's their mother. That's my mom. That's my auntie, Go ahead, girl. When she gets over there and she says, Look, I have five girls. That's it. It's enough. That scene is one of my favorites because you never know in the script how that's gonna turn out. I'm so proud of that moment.