When the news emerged of a film revolved around the Williams sisters being in the works, I felt simultaneously excited and apprehensive. Venus and Serena Williams are two of the most successful athletes in history, so witnessing their achievements depicted on-screen is a thrilling prospect for any sports fan. However, capturing these achievements in the form of a biographical drama poses numerous obstacles, as many features in this genre tend to end up adhering to certain formulas such as the rise-and-fall arc or the rags-to-riches narrative, reducing the subject’s life to a series of clichés. Moreover, the Williams sisters’ careers are characterised by consistent success and an unprecedented level of dominance in their field going back to their early teens, so how do you create narrative stakes without taking too much dramatic licence? As it transpires, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin have found a way of honouring the siblings’ legacy and crafting an emotionally engaging flick by mainly focusing on the women’s relationship with an individual most audience members would be unfamiliar with…their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith).
This film takes place during the early phase of the tennis stars’ playing careers and explores the level of influence Richard Williams had on and off the court. It is clear from the outset that the girls’ father had envisioned them becoming champions, developing an 85-plan which outlined their path to success. Putting this plan into action proves rather difficult for Richard, mainly because the coaches he implores to train Venus and Serena are so dubious of their abilities that they turn down his requests without even watching the girls play. As King Richard progresses, we realise that the challenges facing the sisters had little to do with doubts over their tennis skills, and had more to do with the stigmatisation of the Black community in Compton and the reluctance of their father to have them follow the traditional path to success.
Richard Williams makes for a fascinating lead figure as he is not written or performed as some sort of stereotypical coach/father, whether it be a strict disciplinarian or a warm, affable mentor. The love he has for his children is salient, one that he expresses constantly and is reciprocated not only by Venus and Serena, but the other three daughters he shares with his wife Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjaune Ellis). However, he also possesses steel, which manifests through his training sessions, his interactions with his family relatives at home, and his dealings with coaches and agents. An intriguing aspect of his parenting is that even though he wants Venus and Serena to flourish as tennis players, he wants them to be even better human beings. At one point, he reprimands his children for talking disparagingly about an opponent Venus defeated in a juniors’ event by abandoning them at a grocery store, hoping that this act which teach them about the value of humility. However, he ensures that they maintain a certain level of innocence as children, exemplified in a moment when Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) – one of the girls’ coaches – is informed that Richard has cancelled their session with him in order for them to spend the day at Disneyworld. Before each match, he reminds his children to have fun, a seemingly throwaway comment but one that emphasises the entertainment they should get from what they do, rather than carrying the burden of feeling under pressure to win.
The complexity of Richard Williams as a character is enhanced by the manner in which the film interrogates his motivations for pushing his daughters to attain greatness in the way he does. While the titular figure is extremely bullish and often overbearing, deep down there is a vulnerability that has been heavily shaped by the harsh treatment he and his family have endured in Compton. After a coaching session with his girls early in the movie, Richard is beaten up by a group of teenagers, and his resignation to the whole ordeal signifies that this is not the first time this has happened. Later on, a neighbour of the Williams’ makes a frivolous complaint to the police about the family, displaying her deep discomfort of residing across the road from them. Richard has seen numerous kids of a similar age to his daughters end up involved in prison or dead, therefore tennis serves as a means to escape the dangers of their neighbourhood in Compton. At the same time, the feature recognises that Richard’s persistence in fulfilling his plan is driven by a degree of self-interest, and a few characters, notably “Brandy”, are not afraid to call him out on this. He may want to feel vindicated, but not to the extent that Venus and Serena have little to no say in the direction of their careers. Hence, audience members will rightly want to see Richard fulfil his ambitions, but not without learning a few lessons himself.
King Richard marks the first time Will Smith has appeared in a biographical sports drama since 2001’s Ali, and it is easily his best turn since then. Smith is an actor who has tended to inject much of his own charming personality into his roles, and one of the most impressive aspects of Smith’s performance in the latter was the way he was able to shed certain personality traits of his and effortlessly take on those pertaining to the legendary boxer. His portrayal of Richard Williams features a similar level of skill; although Williams himself, like Smith, is very charismatic, there is a nervous energy to him that viewers would not associate with the global superstar, yet the actor conveys this wonderfully. He is capable of delivering a witty, and occasionally humorously cutting comment, but you can detect a degree of consternation behind it. Smith’s excellent lead performance is complemented in the ensemble cast by the likes of Aunjane Ellis as “Brandy”, who treads a fine line between remaining loyal to her husband in tricky situations and questioning his motives behind numerous decisions, and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena respectively, radiating vivacity as the young prodigies.
Just as the success of the Williams sisters was partly down to their avoidance of the expected pathway of young tennis stars, King Richard’s success as a stirring biographical drama is due to the wisdom of Green and Baylin to veer away from some of the genre’s conventions, instead moulding a tale of exceptional sporting achievement into a compelling family drama. Subsequently, its appeal as a film should broaden beyond tennis fans, as its focus on issues such as parenting, leadership, and stigmatisation are likely to resonate with many audience members.