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.)
It’s also a corrective to negative stereotypes about Black family life, particularly Black fatherhood (a topic more complex than is often recognized). The Williamses live in a world where police and social services may show up at their home if neighbors don’t approve of their parenting. Richard recalls “running from the Klan” in his youth, and on television we see the infamous images the Rodney King beating. Richard knows his daughters will have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. King Richard is a story about the difference that determined, self-sacrificing parents and a strong family life can make in the lives of children, even in a hostile world. (Faith is also part of this picture, notably in a grace before meals addressed to “our heavenly Father Jehovah God,” and if you didn’t know the Williams sisters were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, a couple of references to “Kingdom Hall,” rather than church, make that clear.)
It would be hard to overstate the perfection of this role for Will Smith, and vice versa. It’s like a greatest-hits recapitulation of his career from his debut as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to his Oscar-winning turn in the fact-based The Secret of Happyness as a struggling father and salesman sacrificing for his child, along with the sports-themed biographical films Ali and Concussion. Smith’s real-life son Jaden plays his son in The Secret of Happyness, adding further resonance to his portrayal of a father advocating for his children’s careers. Even his larger-than-life sci-fi roles in Independence Day and especially Men in Black capitalize on Smith’s persuasiveness in underdog roles casting him as a fish out of water or, alternatively, a man seemingly out of his depth, in which his natural strengths — charisma, charm, canny intelligence, and self-confidence — enable him to negotiate unfamiliar worlds and overcome apparently insurmountable odds.
All this history is on the screen as Smith faces rejection after rejection pitching his daughters to skeptical potential sponsors and coaches, trains them on rundown public tennis courts at night in the rain, and defies the experts over and over, most dramatically pulling the girls out of juniors competition for years and even skipping training to take them to Disneyworld. The Louisiana accent and stiff gait are Richard’s, but Smith’s expansive personality — irrepressible cheerfulness and a wry sense of humor, self-possession, dignity, and indomitable resolve laced with an undercurrent of defiance — suffuses the film. Smith’s Richard is two different men, tender and patient and demanding with his daughters, but simultaneously disarming and sly when negotiating on their behalf with the world into which he seeks to gain access for them, but only on the best possible terms.
While the wives of sports-movie heroes and coaches are often relegated to passive support, Oracene (a formidable Aunjanue Ellis) is more than that. A training montage intercuts between Richard videotaping Venus’ training sessions at an elite club with her first professional coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), and Oracene coaching Serena on the public courts using Richard’s videotapes as her training manual. Oracene is the only person able to stand up to Richard and put him in his place, something she does only two or three times throughout the film. While the Williams’ home life is overwhelmingly one of endearing serenity and harmony, and Venus, Serena and their older half-sisters are invariably good-natured with one another and affectionately respectful toward their parents, there are rare occasions when Richard’s dramatic methods go too far and Oracene must advocate for her daughters to Richard himself.
In the second half, Saniyya Sidney’s role as Venus becomes increasingly crucial as she comes into her own, first as a player and then as a professional taking control of her destiny. With her confidence and determination, she seems like a force of nature, which only makes it more unnerving whenever anxiety or fallibility disrupt her invincible vibe. As Serena, Demi Singleton’s role is quieter but more conflicted as she watches her sister gain access to their shared dreams ahead of her. In a scene perhaps overdoing his seeming prescience, Richard assures her that he planned from the start for Venus to pave the way for Serena to be the greatest of all time.
Among the many right moves of the screenplay from first-time screenwriter Zach Baylin is not trying to tell too much of the story. The climax, Venus’ professional debut in Oakland pitting her against world No. 2-ranked Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, makes for an unconventional yet satisfying ending. This is an origin story, a prologue, to the stories yet to be told about the Williams sisters’ extraordinary careers and lives.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.