Will Smith is very moving in his portrayal of Richard Williams, whose seemingly impossible plan to achieve tennis superstardom with two of his children, his gifted daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), famously succeeded. So moving, it’s pretty easy to be tolerant of the more formulaic sports biopic aspects of King Richard, currently playing in theaters and on HBO Max — the tense early matches that must be played against all odds and won, the awed faces as coaches realize the potential greatness of the young players, and so on. These typical scenes are given added kick by the extremity of the case: As we know going into the film, Richard Williams isn’t just bragging or deluding himself — he actually has in his charge the tennis version of “the next Michael Jordan,” or as Williams puts it, “the next two” Michael Jordans.
The problem the film has to overcome is how to invest suspense in a narrative when the audience knows how it comes out. Even people who aren’t into sports know about the dazzling careers of the famous Venus and Serena Williams. Perhaps this accounts for the lackluster box office showing of the film over Thanksgiving weekend.
Or it could be that the very solution to that narrative problem is what’s keeping people away, at a time when they’d rather be watching the lightest of all film fare, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Encanto, the new Disney animated musical. It’s a shame, because the solution seems like a smart one. Screenwriter Zach Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green wisely focus on the more obscure and troubling — but still incredible — figure of Richard Williams, who is driven to overcome a lifetime of harrowing racism in making sure his daughters succeed.
Smith conveys so many poignant details of the terrible damage already done to Williams by a viciously racist society, it’s painful to watch him at times. Made up with prematurely grizzled hair, his eyes are glazed with exhaustion plus a kind of deliberate expressionlessness from the long practice of making himself unreadable so as not to show fear in a predatory world. Smith captures the slightly stooped shoulders on a basically athletic frame, weighed down by working-class hardship.
He’s taken so many beatings in his lifetime, by cops, Klan members, and random white supremacist mobs in his Louisiana youth, that when young black gang members come at him on the dilapidated tennis courts of Compton, California, he knows how to just drop to the ground and curl up and let the kicks and blows rain down on him. He’s got his head pushed forward as Williams stubbornly walks and drives the rough streets in his ratty old orange van, obsessing on his “plan,” thinking of new ways to coach the girls in winning tennis-playing techniques, and ways to score a star-making coach with no money, and ways to promote the extraordinary talents of his daughters that nobody established in the game seems to care about because they’re black girls and tennis is still seen as a white sport in the 1990s despite the championship careers of Althea Gibson in the 1950s and Arthur Ashe in the 1960s–70s.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” is one of several Williams truisms that his daughters know to recite on cue.
Richard Williams is a maddening person, like most monomaniacs, especially those who’ve been brutalized by life, and it seems he’s only going to get more impossible to deal with the more he succeeds on his daughters’ behalf. That’s the main drama of the film, shadowing the more conventional story of the rise of the Williams sisters as tennis champs, as he drives top coaches crazy with his interference and courts the media with self-aggrandizing interviews.
It seems at a few points that the film is headed toward considerably darker territory, especially with a confrontation between Richard and his wife Oracene aka “Brandy” (Aunjanue Ellis), who’s fed up with his controlling behaviors and hogging all the credit for the girls’ success. A strong athlete herself, she reminds him, she coached the girls too, and has largely supported the family as a nurse while Richard chased various pie-in-the-sky business plans that never panned out — not to mention his children with other women showing up at the door.
In their real lives, the saga of Richard’s three marriages and divorces and many children include the five kids he abandoned — along with his embittered first wife — in order to settle down with second wife Oracene to raise her three daughters plus the two they had together, Venus and Serena.
But that backstory is left out of the film, other than the hints contained in that one confrontation. Oracene Price got involved in the project early, at the script stage, with daughter Isha Price serving as an executive producer, and they insisted on a number of changes before approving it. Here’s one example of a rewrite they demanded, according to Price, who was reading the script aloud to her mother and started laughing:
In one of the original iterations of the script, when Daddy had gotten beaten up one time, my mom met him at the hospital and was running alongside the gurney going, “What did they do to my husband?” . . . I read her that part and she goes, “Oh, heck no!” The scene was changed to depict Oracene, a trained nurse, patching her husband up at the kitchen table.
The film stops at an early inspirational point, as young teen Venus rises to tennis fame, with Serena right behind her, their triumph representing a united family effort. There’s documentary footage of the actual Williams family at the end, so we can see how many details the film got right — the ratty van Williams drove his daughters around in, the crude early promotional videos he shot of the duo.
It’s too bad if these efforts to give the film an uncomplicated happy ending don’t get the public to show up. Because it’s not a bad little film, and seriously, Will Smith is tremendous in it. If he doesn’t get nominated for a lot of awards, something’s really wrong here.