11:23 AM / Saturday June 10, 2023

12 Nov 2021

The Fresh Prince becomes King: A juxtaposition of walking in greatness

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November 12, 2021 Category: Entertainment Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Moderator for the evening, Queen Latifah joins Will to discuss his new book at The Met. (Photos by K-Len Anderson)

By Kharisma McIlwaine

Will Smith’s name has been synonymous with two things throughout his career of over 30 years — Philadelphia and greatness. The multi-hyphenate has accomplished so much in his career as a rapper, actor and producer, including Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and made history as the first rapper to win a Grammy. 

Now, Smith takes on two incredible new feats: the role of Richard Williams in the film “King Richard,” and the role of author with the release of his autobiography, “Will.” On November 8, Smith returned home to kick off his book tour at The Met. During the candid conversation moderated by his longtime friend Queen Latifah, Smith shared stories about his life with excerpts from the book. The conversation showed how in many ways, Will’s life experiences prepared him for the role of Williams.

“King Richard,” which Smith stars in and co-produces with Westbrook Inc., depicts the unbelievable dedication Williams put forth to ensure his family would succeed. The film shows the lengths — that were often extreme — that Williams goes through to help Venus and Serena become two of the best athletes and tennis players of all time. 

“King Richard”begins with Richard taking his daughters to the local tennis court in Compton, which was a daily part of their rigorous practice schedule. The film highlights how the entire Williams family lived and breathed tennis and excellence. Williams had a plan for his daughters’ success and stuck to it — a plan that was outlined in a 78-page document. That blueprint, and his refusal to shy away from it, often led to controversy in Williams’ relentless and often brazen approach to protecting his daughters, while simultaneously coaching and guiding their careers. Although Williams’ methods were often criticized, and his decision to go against the grain was even misunderstood by his own children, his dedication to making his daughters’ dreams a reality shouldn’t be overlooked. With Williams’ plan and his daughters’ incredible talent and work ethic, those dreams came to fruition. 

Will greets the crowd.

“King Richard,” directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, has a stellar cast which includes breakout young talents Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Serena) as well as powerhouses Aunjanue Ellis, who plays wife and mother, Oracene Williams, and Jon Bernthal, coach (Rick Macci). The film also makes it a point to show how racism and classism were major factors in the Williams sisters’ journey to success. Two Black girls from Compton, with no means or access to the normal methods that were used for a successful trajectory in tennis, had to carve their own niche — Richard Williams did everything in his power to help them do just that. 

During a press conference with the main cast and Venus and Serena Williams (also producers on the film), Smith shared how the infamous press conference where Richard interrupted a journalist who attempted to undermine Venus’ confidence, impacted his parenting in real life.

“The image burned in my heart because that’s how I wanted my daughter to look when I showed up. That interview really changed my parenting at that time,” Smith explained. “The look on Venus’ face — it was like she had a lion, and she was so confident and so comfortable that her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. I fell in love with Richard Williams — that was 20-something years ago. When the opportunity to be a part of this came up, that was the first thing that I remembered. I knew that I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.”

Smith embodied the role of Richard Williams, bringing an empathy and softness to the unorthodox patriarch that many just wrote off as arrogant and unlikeable. Ultimately, “King Richard” is about a Black father, fighting with his own demons while trying to create a better life for his family. After taking in the film and the night at The Met, it was easy to see so many parallels in both autobiographical journeys. Smith, who has never shied away from being an open book, shared some of the toughest lessons his success taught him.

The evening at The Met opened with his co-author Mark Manson welcoming the audience and then Smith to the stage. He was greeted with a standing ovation before diving in headfirst. 

DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith perform for the crowd.

“I’ve lived a whole lot of life since growing up in the streets of West Philly,” Smith said. “I think I got to the point where I had enough experiences, suffered enough and won enough that I could share something that would be helpful. It’s really critical to suffer and overcome adversity. The overcoming of adversity is how we gain wisdom, it’s how we gain understanding. Sometimes we don’t want it, we so don’t want to hurt like that — but it’s like for some reason, that’s how God designed it. The hurt is the road to heaven.”

Smith opened up about a world of hurt, beginning with feeling like he couldn’t protect his mother from his father, who was physically abusive to her. He shared how that hurt and those feelings of helplessness impacted how he wanted to father his own children.

“My father passed in 2016, and there were a lot of things in my childhood that I couldn’t talk about,” he said. “After my father passed, I felt more free to share some of the less flattering realities of my childhood. My father was my hero. It’s so hard — that dichotomy — those things go together… adversity and perseverance go together. My father was both things — he was a complicated person. He was one of the greatest aspects of my life, but he was also one of my greatest sources of pain.”

Some of that pain was healed during a 3 a.m. phone call from his father that came after Will broke box office records with “Independence Day.”

“Independence Day” represented a win for him, that he felt like the mistakes that he made hadn’t destroyed or poisoned his family,” Smith said. “We had such a beautiful laugh with that.”

Will Smith’s journey has truly been inspirational not only for Philadelphians seeing one of our own succeed, but also for anyone who has a dream. He begins his book with a story about a wall his father made him, and his little brother rebuild. He built that wall, which initially seemed like an impossible task, by laying one brick at a time. Smith’s life and the life of Richard Williams mirror one another in so many ways. The biggest being that they each are a testament to the endless possibilities that happen when we fight to build our dreams — one brick at a time. 

“King Richard” opens in theaters nationwide and on HBO Max on November 19. It’s a must see! “Will” can be purchased wherever books are sold.

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