That advice sums up a key theme in "King Richard," the biopic of how tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams broke into the game with the help of their persistent father, Richard, played by Will Smith.
Saniyya Sidney, who plays Venus, told Refinery 29 in a joint interview with Demi Singleton, who plays Serena, that the movie portrayed a level of Black girl joy that is not always available to Black girls.
“If you’re between the ages of 6 and 10, you’re growing up and seeing just how different people are and what they expect from you, especially if you’re a young Black girl,” Sidney said. “We get told so much about what we’re supposed to be in this world.”
Sidney said that pressure often eclipses the joy of growing up. She said that’s why it was significant for her to represent unfiltered joy in being a young Black girl.
“Have fun! It’s important for the work to be as fun as it is powerful. That’s also why getting to play Venus and Serena was so much freedom for us — and why Richard made sure they had fun with tennis before it ever became a job.”
Williams often caught criticism for raising tennis stars who did not compete during their formative years. Instead, he famously withheld his daughters from junior tournaments so they could have time to learn new languages, take music lessons, go to Disneyland and “just be kids,” as his character says in the movie. “King Richard” is filled with scenes featuring Venus, Serena and their three sisters flashing sparkling smiles while their scrawny legs run amid bellowing laughter.
Zeba Blay, culture critic and author of “Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Pop Culture,” told NBC BLK that supportive parents protecting their daughters’ youthfulness is key to healthy childhoods.
“It’s so easy for Black girls to be forced to navigate the world without the freedom and the grace and the fun that other young girls are allowed,” Blay said. “There is something really beautiful about seeing a father’s love and seeing two young Black girls be so protected and so encouraged with the messiness and complexity of it because he wasn’t perfect.”
“I was also really just moved by the power of Black women,” Blay added. “As much as Richard is the central figure in the movie, there’s this one scene where you see Aunjanue Ellis as their mother and then all the girls sitting on the couch. And it was just so arresting to see all of these young Black women being so fiercely loved by their mother, who in her own right, is a force to be reckoned with. You don’t really get to see those moments of just levity and love.”
The movie is filled with hand games, sing-alongs and natural hair. Seeing Black girls just be, Blay said, is “a testament to the strength of Black girls and women because they managed to hold on to so much of their humanity while accomplishing so much in a field that didn’t want them.”
Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew plays Tunde Price, Venus and Serena Williams’s oldest sister. Bartholomew told Essence last month that showcasing the humanity of Black girls is a key reason why she signed up for the project.
“To be a human on screen without having to worry about the adultification of young Black women — about the fact that we’re so often asked to make ourselves fit into the mold, to make ourselves smaller, to shrink, to assimilate, to be nice — it’s all I ever wanted. It’s why I do what I do.”
Blay said that’s the point — for Black women “to feel free to be exactly who they are.”