King Richard is a fascinating biopic. The more obvious story belongs to Venus and Serena – and, of course, they’re very present here – but Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film, scripted by Zach Baylin, focuses instead on their father. It’s an astute move. We already know about Venus and Serena – their prodigious talent, their trailblazing, their gracious presence on the world stage. They’re wonderful, inspirational women. But they owe a lot of their success to their father, whose single-minded determination to raise champions has made him a controversial figure.
In King Richard, we are presented with a sympathetic view of a man who has often been depicted as overbearing and manipulative. It seems fair to assume that the man we see here, played with Oscar-worthy aplomb by Will Smith, is closer to the reality than some of the stories we have read. After all, Serena, Venus and their sister Isha are all listed as executive producers, which is about as strong as endorsement gets.
Richard Williams is a man with a plan. A serious, written-down, eighty-page plan. He might have spent his youth running from the Ku Klux Klan, being beaten up and fighting against adversity, but he wants better for his girls. Just because they live in Compton, where he and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), work long shifts in badly-paid jobs (she’s a nurse; he’s a security guard) and five kids share a bedroom, that’s no reason not to pursue your dreams. Richard knows that, if he wants doors to open, he’s going to have to knock loudly, because no talent scouts are coming to the local park to see eleven-year-old Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and her little sister, Serena (Demi Singleton), as they sweep the tennis courts free of leaves and then practise, practise, practise their game.
Of course, there’s not much jeopardy here, because we know how things pan out. Richard’s persistence pays off, and his daughters’ incredible talent is allowed to shine. What makes the story work is its portrayal of the battle, of how damned hard Richard has to work. I’m in awe of the courage it must have taken to boldly approach the most prestigious coaches of the tennis world and demand their attention. The Williamses don’t ‘fit in’ to the rich, white world of tennis, with its moneyed ritual of securing a certain type of coach before entering the right competitions, climbing through the ranks in the conventional way. They’re poor; they’re working class and – most obviously – they’re Black. But as soon as Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), one of those prestigious coaches, sees them play, everything changes. Because Venus and Serena are spectacularly good.
Green manages to make tennis suitably cinematic, which is no mean achievement. I love watching the sport, but this isn’t the same as a match, and repeated shots of serves and volleys can quickly become dull. That doesn’t happen here, despite the two-hour-eighteen-minute running time. He never falls back on the most conventional device of a sports biopic – the ‘inspirational montage.’
Singleton and Sidney are perfectly cast. They nail the Williams sisters’ charming, sweet-natured but fiercely competitive spirits, and are a real delight to watch. And Smith’s Richard might well be generally sympathetic, but it feels plausible as well; he’s no hero or saint. Instead, he’s a bit of a windbag, a bit too self-important, heedless of his wife and as stubborn as a mule. But there’s no doubting his good heart, nor the sacrifices he makes to ensure that his daughters succeed without relinquishing their childhoods, that Venus and Serena not only have a better life than his, but pave the way for other Black girls to follow in their Reebok-prints.