King Richard

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenplay: Zach Baylin
Stars: Will Smith (Richard Williams), Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene “Brandy” Williams), Jon Bernthal (Rick Macci), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams), Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), Tony Goldwyn (Paul Cohen), Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew (Tunde Price), Daniele Lawson (Isha Price), Layla Crawford (Lyndrea Price), Erika Ringor (Ms. Strickland)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2021
Country: U.S.
King Richard
King Richard

The chances of having a daughter who becomes a world champion tennis player are slim. The chances of having two daughters who both become world champion tennis players are even slimmer. And the chances of having two world champion tennis players when you are black and struggling to make ends meet in Compton in the 1980s are virtually nonexistent. But, that is precisely what happened with Richard Williams, whose daughters, Venus and Serena, became legendary fixtures of the professional tennis circuit in the mid-1990s, collecting between them (as of this writing) 30 Grand Slam women’s singles titles, 28 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles, 122 women’s singles titles, 45 women’s doubles titles, and eight Olympic gold medals. They are the two highest earning women’s tennis players in the history of the sport.

King Richard tells the remarkable true story of this unlikely triumph, and the screenplay by Zach Baylin grounds the narrative in not just the conventional arc of sports success, but the unique family dynamic that produced it. As the title suggests, the film is not really about Venus and Serena, but rather about their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith), a dogged promoter and believer who determined from early in their lives that Venus and Serena would be champions and organized much of the family’s life (including that of their three older half-sisters) around training and preparing them. He and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), trained Venus and Serena from the time they were small children, learning as they went while hitting thousands of balls at a decrepit asphalt court in a public park in Compton teeming with gangstas and drug dealers.

Richard developed a “plan” that specified virtually every aspect of how his daughters would become champions that he took around to all the major tennis coaches in Southern California, all of whom turned him down—often with sarcastic or derisive laughs (Who does this guy think he is?)—until finally Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) was willing to take a risk on them. Richard eventually got Venus and Serena (at ages 11 and 10, respectively) into the tennis academy run by Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he moved the whole family and remained a significant presence in their training, refusing to allow Venus to compete in junior’s tennis tournaments against Macci’s advice due to his desire to let her and Serena be kids and to focus on their school. At the time, it was seen as professional suicide, as junior’s tournaments were the traditional path to a professional career, but Richard was always looking ahead and concerned with protecting his daughters while also nurturing their talents, rather than pushing them too hard too fast and causing them to burn out (Jennifer Capriati, who turned pro at 13, is held up as an example of how the traditional path can lead to disaster).

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has worked primarily in television, but recently directed Joe Bell (2020), another story of a dedicated and unconventional father, in this case one who spent a year walking across the country to raise awareness about bullying after his son was harassed in high school for being gay. Green clearly recognizes that much of the film’s success rests on Will Smith’s sizable shoulders, as he plays a character who could easily be read as boorish, self-aggrandizing, and misguided, which is how he was often portrayed in the media because he refused to play by the established rules (and because he was an outspoken and self-confident black man operating in a world run almost exclusively by white people). Yet, Smith, the seasoned pro that he is, finds just the right balance in conveying Richard’s unconventional nature while still grounding it in a genuine love of family and desire to do right by his daughters. He wants to see them conquer the world, but he doesn’t want to destroy them in the process, which is why he resists so many intrusions by those who would claim to know better. Smith’s performance is smart and nuanced, and he allows Richard’s flaws to show, especially in a scene in which Brandy calls him out on his own self-interest (the “King” in the title is both literal and ironic, in this regard).

Baylin’s screenplay most likely sanded off some of the rougher edges of the story, giving us something that is not exactly sanitized, but certainly softened, although it leaves room for plenty of the ugly realities of life, especially the ingrained privilege that is an inherent part of a sport that requires such significant financial resources to be competitive. Being both black and poor put Venus and Serena at an immediate disadvantage in the white-bread world of professional tennis, and a major part of their success was in how they obliterated the ravages of discrimination with sheer force of will. As Richard tells Venus at one point late in the film, she isn’t just representing herself, but every single black girl in America. The film doesn’t focus heavily on race, but it is always there, especially in the way Richard is treated by coaches, other tennis parents, and the media, who clearly respond to him differently because he is black and therefore represents an intrusion of sort into a world that is otherwise bereft of people who look like him. It is to the film’s credit that it does not shy away from this reality while also leaving room for other dramatic elements and thematic emphases, the most prominent being the importance of family unity. Richard isn’t perfect, but his dedication to his daughters, however unconventional, is the stuff of genuine uplift.

Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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