His voice faltering with emotion, Will Smith’s Richard Williams tells young Venus Williams, “You not gon’ be just representin’ you — you gon’ be representin’ every little Black girl on Earth.” If that is the burden that Venus and Serena Williams carried to tennis superstardom, then, for the 138 minutes of King Richard’s running time, some form of that burden falls to Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play, respectively, Venus and Serena as young girls from their days in Compton to Venus’ first professional tournament in Oakland at the age of 14.
For decades, the dominance of the Williams sisters in tennis — historically an overwhelmingly white, upper-class sport, and still among the least diverse professional sports — has been a beacon of inspiration and hope to many, not least little Black girls and other children of color. An authorized biography directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) and made in cooperation with the Williams family (with Venus, Serena, and their half-sister Isha Price credited as executive producers and input from their mother Oracene “Brandy” Price), King Richard is crafted to reflect that beacon to future generations.
As rousing sports films and inspirational biopics go, while King Richard is far from a pitiless, warts-and-all inquiry, it has a particular kind of truthfulness, analogous to the truthfulness of a family scrapbook or stories recounted at family reunions. Such accounts can be called myths, not in the sense that they aren’t true — they are, at least in their broad outlines and overall shape — but in the sense that pictures and incidents have been retrospectively selected, shaped, and colored to form a satisfying origin story, a shared explanation of ourselves and the world both as it is and as it should be. This mythic account of the Williams family includes hardship and conflict, with formidable difficulties to be faced, but the emphasis is on family togetherness, mutual support, and overcoming obstacles. Character flaws and defects are acknowledged up to a point, but our heroes are allowed to put their best foot forward.
Above all, it’s a moving, compelling portrait of a visionary husband and father who suffered, sacrificed, and advocated not only for the incredible destiny he foresaw and even mapped out for his daughters before they were born, but also for the sake of the whole family’s happiness and wellbeing. Standing between his daughters and all manner of dangers, from catcalling hoodlums on the streets of Compton to exploitative agents and aggressive reporters in West Palm Beach, Richard faces rejection, criticism, even beatdowns, but never doubts his daughters’ future greatness, and never allows them to doubt it either. If this portrait isn’t without elements of hagiography, it’s also a corrective to the jaundiced media image from those days of Richard Williams as an egocentric, unorthodox self-promoter — judgments colored by racism and classism. (Whatever tendencies toward self-promotion may have characterized Williams’ management of his daughters’ careers, he was apparently not involved in making the film.)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.