ON THE LINE: THE RICHARD WILLIAMS STORY, 93min., USA, Documentary
Directed by Stuart McClave
In this emotional reckoning featuring never-before-seen interviews and home videos from the 1980s through now, Richard Williams - the son of a cotton picker and the father and coach of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams - retraces his family's journey from the poverty-stricken streets of Shreveport, Louisiana to the grass courts of Wimbledon, fighting back against systems of racial oppression and violence and breaking every rule of the lily-white tennis establishment to forever change the sport.
As a lifelong tennis fan who grew up in a bi-racial family, the Williams clan has always been an inspiration to me and my family. I would force my dad to drive hundreds of miles to watch them play, and modeled my own game after Venus and Serena.
I had always heard stories about Mr. Williams at the tennis clubs or on the practice courts, but they usually began or ended with the terms “crazy” or “outspoken.” Occasionally, I would hear the word “abusive.”
Yet when I would watch interviews with Mr. Williams or observe the family on the courts at major tournaments, I was never clear what warranted such labels. To me, it was obvious that Mr. Williams was a dedicated and loving father and coach who was painfully aware of America’s prejudice and who refused to play by rules and conventions that weren’t designed for people like him.
In April of 2019, I came across an article on Mr. Williams specifically detailing his upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana and the racism he experienced growing up in close proximity to the Klu Klux Klan. Researching his early life further, it was obvious to me that the way in which the media and the lily-white tennis establishment treated him back in the 1990s and early 2000s (often writing him off as an “opportunist,” a “cheat,” “abusive,” or “unhinged”) was a result of their inability to connect with someone outside of their class, socioeconomic status, or race. Leaders in the tennis world were shocked at the confidence Mr. Williams had to assert that his daughters would change the country club sport forever and become the greatest tennis players in the world.
This, in my mind, is why Mr. Williams’s story is one of the greatest American stories of our time.