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Tribeca Interview: Stuart McClave Talks ‘On The Line: The Richard Williams Story’

Hot on the heels of the Oscar-winning narrative feature King Richard (which Joey reviewed here last year), director Stuart McClave delves deeper into the life of Richard Williams, the famed father and tennis coach of the superstar Williams sisters. In anticipation of its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Awards Radar talked to McClave about the experience of getting to the heart of Williams’ outsized persona and visionary impact on the sport of tennis.

SS: Richard Williams is someone who is very aware of the dynamics of race. As a white director, how did you convince yourself that you needed to tell this story for your debut feature?

Stuart McClave: I’ve been a huge tennis fan my whole life. It was honestly my first love. My dad took me out on the courts, just like Mr. Williams, when I was maybe about six or seven. And so I started playing, and I was the biggest Williams family fan. I would make him drive me hundreds of miles to go see Venus and Serena play. And, you know, I just thought that the way that they carried themselves and the way that they kind of changed the game and their power and their groundstrokes, and their ability to kind of dominate their opponents was just really inspirational. So when my professional tennis career didn’t work out, I studied film and journalism at USC. And so I’ve always loved documentaries. But to me, like there’s no greater documentary than one of my heroes from when I was a kid.

I think it was back in 2017, when I was doing a bunch of research on Mr. Williams, I realized that he hadn’t really had a feature documentary. At that time, King Richard wasn’t announced. So I didn’t know if that was in the works. And I got connected to his family and his son Chavoita LeSane – he was a producer on this. I flew out to Palm Beach, and we sat down together right before COVID hit. And in this conversation, it kind of came out my love for tennis, my love for what he did to change the game. And like Mr. Williams, I think we both kind of have this encyclopedic knowledge of the sport that he really responded to. I think there was some form of energy there that allowed him to trust me to tell his story.

For me also, I do come from a biracial family. So tennis and race are two of my passions in life in terms of racial justice and something that I fight for. And something that Mr. Williams has always obviously fought for his whole life. So this is a perfect documentary for me. Honestly, I just feel very blessed and honored that he trusted me with the story. And I’m happy to hear that he, has responded well to the film and thinks that this is a great job telling his legacy.

SS: What were those first interactions with Mr. Williams like?

SC: The first interactions were really in January of 2020, when I flew down to Palm Beach and met him at his home. And we just sat down and had a conversation for a few hours. And it was a life changing moment for me, because I’m meeting this man who I had always heard stories about growing up, and who obviously raised two of the most influential figures of our time. So it was very much like a life changing experience.

But I found him to be very sensitive, very calm. Not what the media portrays him as, especially not what they portrayed him as in the early 2000s. And he just really wanted to be heard and really has very strong convictions about things that have happened in his life. And I think it was just important to find someone that was willing to just listen to him and hone in on what materials do we have to help tell his story in his own words? So that was kind of my job, just to help shape the story that way.

SS: How did you decide on how you were going to structure and frame the film?

SC: For me, it was to sit down with him several times and talk about the most important aspects of his life and what were the stories that kept coming up over and over again. With Mr. Williams, that was really his upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the racism he experienced when he was younger, at the hands of the KKK. And then also, the lessons that his mother taught him. His mother was a single mother of five children. She picked cotton. And still to this day, every time Mr. Williams talks about her, he usually gets emotional, or he’ll start crying. So I knew that that was a huge influence. And honestly, I knew that the same lessons that he was taught by his mother were the same lessons that he passed on to his children and Venus and Serena.

So I was really trying to hone in on that story and that backstory, and then also what happened at Indian Wells was also a big part of the story, because in that tennis tournament in 2001, the crowd turned against the Williams family. Mr. Williams, still to this day, has a lot of pain about that match and can still talk about it very clearly. So I knew that that was kind of like the beginning and end. And then there were stories that I wanted to tell in between, to kind of help contextualize that, like the rumors that were rooted in racism that led to Indian Wells turning on them. So I knew that it was very important to show the accusations of match fixing and how the media portrayed him in the early 2000s.

And that’s really what I tried to focus on since this was his story told through his POV, unlike in the King Richard movie in which Venus and Serena were producers and authors of the film with their sister Isha. So this was a really opportunity for him to give us more context about the stuff that the film left out, which was what happened before Compton and then what happened after Venus Williams turned pro.

SS: It was interesting to learn more about the community outreach the Williams family was involved in. How was the experience of going back to those roots in Shreveport and Compton?

SC: That was kind of the bulk of our shoot. There was actually probably four parts. New York around the US Open to get some of the more key interviews. Then West Palm Beach, which is where Mr. Williams lives. Then Compton for some of those other interviews. And then Shreveport, obviously, where Mr. Williams took us around his childhood neighborhood and talked about the influences of his mother.

It was really powerful to be in Shreveport, especially with Mr. Williams, because it’s a place that brought back a lot of pain, a lot of memories, but also a place of great pride, like just seeing him walk down the street in Shreveport. He is the biggest celebrity that anyone can see there. So he stopped every two seconds. People want pictures. Young kids want pictures of him and then their parents and then their parents. And it’s not even about Venus and Serena in those moments. It’s really about Mr. Williams, which was amazing to see just the impact that he’s had, inspiring people around the world, in that community and of course in Compton. And that, to me was really touching to witness.

SS: What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

SC: I think the biggest takeaway is just, if you have a hero and you’re a documentary filmmaker, you’ve got to pick topics that you’re super passionate about. But choosing a topic that I’ve been passionate about, since I was eight or nine, was a whole different experience for me, because these are heroes that I grew up with, you know? Like, I know who Pam Shriver is, I know who Billie Jean King is. I know everything about them, even in terms of the records that they’ve held and what they’re up to now. And then, of course, Mr. Williams being at the pinnacle of that.

So you know, I just think if you are interested in film, and you want to become a filmmaker, and you want to tell a story, and maybe you think, “Am I the right person to tell this story?” You never know until you sit down in the room with him or her and really try and make your pitch and tell them why you think that you can do their story justice. So I think the biggest takeaway is I’m just very thankful for the cast and crew and the investors and the producers, and the editors and the composer and everyone that worked really hard to make a very tight deadline for Tribeca.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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