Some might be disappointed to learn that the focus of a Williams sisters biopic isn’t Serena or Venus, but instead their father, Richard. But haven’t we all watched their story unfold in real life already? For the past 30 years, Venus and Serena have repeatedly made history in front of our eyes on the court. King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and executive produced by the superstar sisters, aims to reveal how they ended up there, and what role their father played in that success.
“I’m in the champion-raising business,” proclaims Richard Williams (Will Smith), a lanky and almost scarily determined middle-aged Black man living with his wife and five daughters in Compton. Yet at the start of King Richard, he hasn’t exactly raised any legitimate champions yet. When the movie begins, the patriarch is coaching his two young daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), hosting after-school practices on a rundown tennis court where gang members gawk at the girls and occasionally beat up their father. But Richard has a plan, and has had it for a long time: When one day he found out how much money a tennis player can make in one game, he went home and told Mrs. Williams, “We need two more children.”
Richard has his own version of the American dream; instead of striving for success for himself, he wants it for his children. Like anyone else with such a dream, he is willing to put in the work, but it will be a collective effort. The whole family packs up into the van when Venus and Serena need to practice, and the ride is always fun for all. To make such an idyllic setup credible, all members of this rather large acting ensemble need to truly connect. Smith, at its center, brings a great dose of warmth, and as he’s aged, his characteristic playfulness has turned him into the quintessential cool dad who can joke with his children while teaching them about respect and dedication. His tendency to fall into imitation sometimes jars with the ease and naturalism of the other cast members, yet that performative quality fits with the unapologetic ambition of Richard Williams. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays his spouse, Oracene “Brandy” Williams, at once brings out Smith’s antics and puts them in perspective with her own version of tenacity and motherly care—one that is more discreet and subtle, but just as powerful.
Yet what drives Richard’s determination isn’t just a thirst for his kids’ success. He is able to take the criticism of a concerned neighbor worried that he pushes his children too far because he knows that he is only trying to give them the best life possible. The political dimension of King Richard is explicit throughout, not only because there simply weren’t many professional Black tennis players in America before the Williamses, but also because of the racism they experienced directly. This context and its challenges are intimately connected to the story’s understanding of what a family can be. Richard gets each sibling involved and invested in each other’s success (another Williams daughter becomes a lawyer at one point in the film) because only with solidarity will they be able to fight the violence and inequality they go up against. When Venus and Serena start playing in the junior circuit, all the Williamses go to support them proudly—the only Black family on the court and in this white and elitist sporting tradition. When Venus gets Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, with a great mustache) as a coach, Richard insists that the contract say the whole family will have to move to Florida with her.
As a sports origin story, King Richard thankfully avoids giving away precious tennis tips and instead focuses on the various kinds of nurturing that the girls received. In this very approbatory film, Richard never chooses between being his daughters’ father or their coach. He remains both, and makes sure they can be at once little girls and future champions. The family, and all the support it represents, isn’t an empty tradition for him, but the very soil from which happiness and freedom can grow. When he begins introducing Venus and Serena to potential coaches, those who bother to watch the girls play are impressed by what his attention, care, and amateur study of tennis magazines and tapes has resulted in, even as their very profession seems to be called into question: If a dedicated and loving dad can make champions, what are acclaimed coaches and their special techniques for? In this more discreet way, King Richard again challenges the principles of the status quo, the world, and the ideas that have been built over centuries by white, privileged men in which individualism, sacrifice, and suffering lead to greatness. Richard has taught his daughters that enjoyment and togetherness are just as crucial to learning as endless repetition. He can see how so many of the (notably) white parents put incredible amounts of pressure on their children, berating them to the point that many of them seem to have forgotten that tennis is, first and foremost, a game.
Richard’s motto, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” ironically doesn’t quite apply to the film itself. For all its uplifting and motivating impact, the determinism that permeates King Richard also gives it a pre-planned, pre-packaged flavor that takes away from its more original aspects. Thankfully, the perfect tableau gets a touch of shadow when Richard’s care turns into over-protectiveness, and his character gets some welcome shape and nuance. At the same time, this anguish is soon brushed away when the girls meet their first successes on the world stage. Marriage problems, it seems, can also be planned away, and in that respect, the film falls a little too eagerly into some more traditional values, so desperate it is to make the audience like and understand the less traditional sides of Richard’s character. Just as frustrating is the one-dimensional way in which Venus and Serena’s coaches are depicted. Despite Bernthal’s best accent work and teenage boy energy, the script is content to have him be nothing more than a happy soldier at Richard’s service, his personality barely coming through even as he is faced with such a historical job. Although Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton bring much teenage energy and ease to their roles, there’s not much to their characters other than their potential. These missed opportunities for greater subtlety and complexity turn the impressive, unusual, and uplifting story of King Richard into a sometimes flat and too-pleasant tale of familial love. Nevertheless, its core argument that nurturing and affection are more powerful than privilege still challenges the narratives we’ve long held about success and its cost, and functions as a compelling through line in the story that Venus and Serena first created on the court.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.