Yes, the film is called ‘King Richard’, but Melan Magazine also stans for ‘Queen Oracene’ played by the magnificent Aunjanue Ellis in the Netflix flick.
Telling the story of how Venus and Serena Williams’ father, Richard steered and nurtured his daughters to global tennis superstars, King Richard does a great job of adding some colour to the narrative we have seen on TV and read about regarding the journey of the Williams sisters’ success. But watching the two hours plus film, another narrative shone through, one that highlighted how much of a contribution their mum, Oracene “Brandy” Williams made to the success of the tennis stars, a role fulsomely played by the wonderful Aunjanue Ellis.
Aunjanue once again brought the goods to her latest role. Appearing to finally be getting the recognition she deserves in her 25+ years acting career, the actress was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for HBO’s critically acclaimed Lovecraft Country, as Hippolyta Freeman, her second Emmy nomination in three years—the first one being an Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series nomination for her work in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. However, it was Aunjanue’s performance in Lovecraft Country that made her a fan favourite for me; and let’s not forget her impassioned turn as Fonny’s mum in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Excellently cast as Oracene, Aunjanue brought an unassuming strength and unshakeable dignity to the role. Exactly how we would picture the mother of Venus and Serena; and in this film, rightly also credited with nurturing her young daughters to hone their talents and achieve dominance in the tennis world.
The determination and sacrifice the family endured becomes even more evident when we learnt that both Richard and Oracene taught themselves about tennis for the two years before Venus was born, and they learned the sport together. During a press conference promoting the film, the emphasis on family and doing things together was a familiar thread that ran through as an important value.
Yes, it’s called ‘King Richard,’ but it’s also ‘Queen Oracene.’ I’m so excited for the world to know that this woman,
Aunjanue describes Oracene’s level of involvement in the family’s success. She said: “Going in, I thought that she was a cheerleader for their children, as any mother would be. That she was at the matches, stood by and supported Richard’s vision. But this woman, Queen Oracene, was as instrumental as Mr. Williams was. That, to me, is what is so exciting. Yes, it’s called ‘King Richard,’ but it’s also ‘Queen Oracene.’ I’m so excited for the world to know that this woman, whom they saw in the stands, was their coach, on the courts with them, doing drills, coming up with strategy, training them and also designing the way they would play that would change the course of history for tennis. This woman did that, and she was not credited. I’m excited that people will now know.”
Giving further insight into her character, Aunjanue added: “Richard had the vision for what he wanted—to raise athletes, tennis stars. They had children so they could be tennis stars. Miss Oracene was training herself to be a tennis coach and working at the same time. Mr. William is a little bit more quixotic—he had these ideas and these dreams. Miss Oracene was more of the grounded machine of this project. She knew what she had to do; she knew she had to work; she knew she had to teach herself how to play tennis; and she knew she had to train the girls. She could not and would not give up on that. Any time there were big challenges, she would not let him give up… not so much of ‘we can’t give up on the dream,’ but more ‘we can’t give up on our commitment to those girls.’ And another thing about her, she had a commitment that went beyond their marriage. Her religion dictated that. That was her character. And we see the results of that on the courts of Wimbledon now.”
Capturing the essence of such a powerful character couldn’t have been easy. Aunjanue describes taking a research-based methodology when it came to helping her find and build her character. She attests: “I listened to a lot of recordings of Miss Oracene; I got a lot from that. Isha [Oracene’s first daughter, an attorney/lawyer in her own right, and also producer of the film], was our B.S. monitor, if you know what I mean. When we would come up with ideas to try, she would sometimes say, ‘I appreciate your effort, but no—that’s not how that was.’ She not only helped maintain the authenticity of the story, including how things looked, but she was also a creative guide for us. They have their way of being, the Williams family. She would keep us on track with all of that. She was invaluable to us—on the sidelines, keeping us in check.”
It would appear that we are not the only ones who thought Aunjanue did an amazing job. The film’s director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, also commented: “Aunjanue is absolutely remarkable, and she can make anything out of nothing. And sometimes, it’s her most quiet scenes that are just absolutely riveting. She’s an incredible actress—so thoughtful, so powerful—and her work ethic, what she brings to the table. She really is the truth. The camera knows when you’re lying, and she really delivers every single time.”
King Richard is showing in UK cinemas from 19 November and on Netflix.