‘King Richard’ Review: Will Smith Rules as Venus and Serena’s Dad
In his 2014 memoir Black and White: The Way I See It, Richard Williams — father of tennis legends Venus and Serena and a noted celebri-dad in his own right — tells the story of the lynching of his childhood best friend, a boy his age named Lil Man.
This was in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the 1950s. His was an impoverished but eventful life, as Williams describes it, marred by his father’s emotional abandonment and by the racism of the era, but brightened by Williams’ sense of duty to his mother and sisters. He spent his adolescence tending to a produce garden in his family’s backyard, going so far to hire employees — loiterers he paid to stalk street corners and drive business his way. Whatever produce they didn’t have to sell, Williams stole from white vendors, passing it off as his own stock. Reckless? Heroic? He was a young Black man whose father, in the memoir’s telling, “put me way behind the starting line in the race of life.” The race of life: a phrase tragically summarized in Lil Man’s lynching. The act was a warning to young men like Williams not to get ahead of themselves, never mind their barely keeping pace to begin with.
This is not a story that the Richard Williams of King Richard, played by Will Smith, tells in explicit detail onscreen, despite being a man full of stories — and potentially, to the primarily white world of tennis in the 1990s, full of shit. Nor does the movie give us the lowdown on another tale Williams spins in his memoir, one that’s just as memorable and revealing: of dressing up in a Klan uniform as a teenager and, feeling duly empowered, knocking a white guy upside his head with a stick.
Here’s what the movie does give us: a Richard Williams who somehow makes those stories — their brash, tireless, fearless near-foolishness — plausible. A Williams for whom abandonment by one’s father is a mistake not to be repeated.
King Richard is, in the broad sense, a movie about the making of Venus and Serena. It gets there through a portrait of their father that is in many ways consistent with the man we meet in that memoir — consistent, that is, with the stories he’s told about himself, as distinct from the stories told about him in the media during his heyday as a thorn in the tennis world’s side. It’s a portrait keen on making us aware of the vast gulf between these portrayals, and on trying to get us to see this man from both sides.
So we are treated to an equal-parts moving and humorous depiction of Williams the hard-working family man, on the one hand, and of Williams the dadager on the other. The latter Williams was infamous for shirking the so-called rules of the game and troubling, in his private life, for his willingness to steamroll the desires of even those people closest to him, the women in his life that he was ostensibly working so hard to support. We get Williams the persistent pain in the ass who knows that the only way to bring two Black girls from Compton to the attention of the best tennis coaches in the country is, frankly, to be a pain in the ass; and the Williams so dead-set on his vision for the family’s future that he forgets to talk things over with his wife, Brandy (played by the great Aunjanue Ellis), who’s just as much their coach as he is. The Williams who embodies stubbornness while chastising his daughters for it; and who can’t even let a family rewatch of Cinderella go by without turning it into a pop quiz on morality.
Williams, as charismatically portrayed by Smith, is overwhelming. Obstinate. Bold. Savvy. Pugnacious. Selfless in that special way that somehow veers right back around to selfishness. On the subject of Venus and Serena, who he believes will be the future of tennis, he is also absolutely correct. Which leads to another of his standout qualities: He knows it. King Richard sayeth that these women will rule the world of sports. And they do. Williams’ fearsome need to do for his five daughters what his own father denied him is King Richard’s salient dramatic spark. It’s the scaffolding of the character and, accordingly, the movie. It’s the essence of who the movie says the man is.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by first-time screenwriter Zach Baylin, King Richard is set in the early Nineties, when Venus and Serena (played, respectively, by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, lovely young stars who are easy to root for) and their three sisters are still teens or younger. It’s a time when the streets of Compton are vulnerable to drive-bys and the cops are a hovering threat. The Rodney King beating is being played and replayed on TV. A nosey neighbor calls the cops on the Williams family with fake concern for the ways that Richard and Brandy are overworking their daughters. Much of this is cinematic territory already covered in films from the period in which King Richard is set, like John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, down to even the hard-won lessons bestowed by strict, caring, fearless Black parents. The familiarity of the dynamic isn’t a reference to that earlier film, but an effort at continuing its counternarrative. To the misjudgments of the Moynihan Report and its view on Black families, here are movies about Black parents — the plural matters — being courageous, vital forces in their children’s’ lives, contra a broader public belief that Black households such as this did not exist.
Only, as a film about raising young Black women, and as a film about sports, there are lessons in King Richard that we won’t find in films like Boyz. In the midst of everything else being thrown the Williams daughters’ way (including tennis balls), the film nods to the distinct dangers facing young women, the street education they’re getting in the realities of catcalling and predatory men. And tennis? Its overbearing whiteness tends to speak for itself.
These are the overwhelming external odds confronting this family. Despite hard-working parents (he’s a night guard; she’s a nurse; both are skilled tennis coaches) and sky-high dreams, those odds seem not to be in its favor. We all know how this story ends, and the movie knows that we know, but so far as this Williams family is concerned, nothing is guaranteed — even as Richard’s belief that his daughters will succeed has all the power and might of a sure thing. The movie’s portrait of Compton isn’t entirely played for sociological seriousness. It becomes something of a joke to see white men, specifically the likes of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) — coaches who take a chance on these young women, thanks to Richard’s persistence — riding into town, getting a taste of how the other half lives, looking as pale and out of place as ponies at a horse race. As the necessary counterpoint to the whiteness of the tennis world, this version of Compton almost feels too simple, as if the movie’s prying our mouths open — and those of the white coaches — to ask, “They came from this?” When drive-by shootings become a trope on the way to other peoples’ Horatio Alger-esque success stories, something is possibly amiss.
But there’s a strong, straightforward drama coursing through the heart of the movie, the predictable but satisfying undulation of the underdog story arc — in sum, the stuff that makes sports movies such reliable vehicles for tear-jerking, riveting storytelling. The world of tennis, and the prejudices that come with it, proves a key ingredient. Here, it is a world beset with stereotypes that have a twinge of satire, as during a succession of scenes in which every one of Venus’ white competitors storms off after losing, like an entitled brat. The country clubs with their pools and high-end burgers, the Rick Macci tennis camp, the home the Williams are given to live in while they train: all of it stands in, not inaccurately, for the whiteness of the entire sport, the ease with which money is both a barrier and an expectation.
It’s into these spaces that we get King Richard asserting himself as, well, himself, armed with brochures about his daughters, finessing his way into meetings with the best coaches in the country, all the while holding the reins of his daughters’ images and careers. Despite its well-worn triumphant narrative, King Richard proves convincing at giving credence to the idea of Williams as a fact already stranger than fiction — the kind of man you can’t help but feel is a real character, in the everyday-life sense of that phrase: a one-of-a-kind guy, hard to reproduce. Green and Smith make good on the fact that Williams is dedicated to his daughters to the point of being just this side of nutty. The character grows into someone whose choices you cannot always trust, even if history would prove him right eventually — and in proving him right, make a case for the value Richard sees in his daughters, which is to say, in Black women.
That the real story at stake here is that of the rise of Venus and Serena isn’t lost on the movie. Its climactic scenes are the same as any classically satisfying sports movie’s: athletes (in this case, young Venus) making decisions about themselves, their worth, their futures, and bringing those notions to bear in a knock-down, drag-out match. This stage of King Richard is especially satisfying, the filmmaking rhythmic, the tensions nearly tactile. The movie’s emphasis on Richard, to this point, gives the action an added kick, on all fronts. When big-name sports brands try to lure Venus toward instant riches before she’s even played the match that would seal her reputation as a force to be reckoned with, King Richard transforms the scene into a shift in the balance of power: from father to daughter, from manager to star. When the actual match comes, it testifies to this shift. Richard recedes, watching from a distance. He strips himself down to one role: the supportive father.
The movie-humble quirks of Smith’s performance are very much in line with the relatable Will we met in films like The Pursuit of Happyness, serving to heighten the seeming implausibility of the Williams sisters’ successes by occasionally verging on becoming a liability. As Williams is told time and again, the man’s professional aspirations for his virtuoso daughters, who were relatively untested when they emerged on the scene, are ambitious to the point of being stubborn. You don’t have to be from Compton for the dream of winning Wimbledon to feel like a long shot. But if you are from Compton…
Richard’s reasoning? He wants his daughters to have childhoods. Yes, he works them hard. But when it’s time for a match, his words of encouragement are simple: Have fun. Compare this to the other tennis parents in the sport’s many country clubs, living competitively through their children. King Richard isn’t saying that Richard is less of a helicoptering control freak. It’s just that his reasons seem to be drawn from an opposite well — that well of traumatic experiences the real Richard writes about in his memoir, which get whittled down into only a few glimmering details in the movie.
That writing choice is almost too bad, because it’s that background material, more than most of what the movie provides, that bores a hole straight into the inner life of the man, helps us make sense of a drive that seems outsized for even the most driven parents. Williams proves quite the personality, running his life like a one-man PR firm and management team (despite his wife playing just as vital a role), exercising a degree of care and control over his daughters’ lives that stood in stark contrast to the gotta-win white parents on every side. The media, seeing him from the outside, had a way of making him into a circus freak, what with his off-color — some would say candid — remarks about race and money and the game and all his talk of that 78-page plan he’d written to map out the young prodigies’ sterling futures. To the people who doubted him, Williams was a huckster. King Richard, by contrast, has faith in the man’s faith.
So much so that he’s almost rendered into a saint, however human. The movie, which is admirably sincere but for a few too-drippy scenes, is sometimes at its weakest in allowing Smith to play him up like that saint, even as the screenplay makes sure to bring him down to size when it counts, as solid adult dramas tend to do. Better is Smith’s turn as Richard the Unpredictable, Richard the Overbearing, Richard the Goofy. The Richard quizzing the family on life lessons via Disney; the Richard who preaches humility yet fails to practice it.
Zach Baylin — once a prop and set dresser for shows like Girls and Damages; now a big-ticket Hollywood writer who’s already been tapped to pen the script for Creed III — has written an utterly consumable version of this story, shaving off the complexities of Richard’s past and even present to portray him as a man whose eye is firmly on the future. There’s a nod to the fact that Williams has children outside of his marriage to Brandy, from whom he is currently divorced. The side of Richard responsible for that indiscretion is largely left out of the movie — but of course Brandy cannot leave it unmentioned. And Ellis is too good of an actor not to give her a major scene of confrontation. She makes good on the chance, forcing us to reconcile the childhood survivalist Richard, the cheating Richard, the Richard who undermines her by excluding her, with the Richard doing good by his daughters.
Richard Williams’ life avails us of a movie hero too robust for the usual three-act, feel-good, I-laughed-I-cried kind of movie. If that’s ultimately what King Richard is, it’s good at being what it is, generous with its character complexities and dramatic pleasures in ways that strong actors in pursuit of solid roles, to say nothing of the Oscar voters eager to reward their work, cannot resist. The basic sports-movie template of the competitive underdog who proves everyone wrong is equally irresistible — even when you already know that the story ends with the underdogs becoming two of the most heralded athletes in the history of sports. The movie’s brightest-burning idea, and it is sincerely moving, is that Richard, for his flaws, does what he does on behalf of the young Black women he’s raising. This rings true in real life and in fiction. He doesn’t need to be selfless, or even likable, for it to be true; if Smith’s performance sells us on one thing, it’s this.
Why King Richard, then, when the story of interest to most people is probably that of his daughters, tennis’s reigning queens? This is the kind of movie to question the difference. Yes, it says, these women are once-in-a-lifetime athletes. But what are we, the movie asks, if not products of the sacrifices, flaws, and sky-high aspirations of our parents?