Arts movie review

A will of steel: Reinaldo Marcus Green imagines champions into existence in ‘King Richard’

New biopic chronicles the rise of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams through the lens of their father and first coach, Richard Williams

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Will Smith, Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney star as Richard, Serena and Venus Williams in ‘King Richard,’ now available in theaters and on HBO Max.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

King Richard
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenplay by Zach Baylin
Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

The family of the most storied sibling pair in sports history is the subject of a new biographical film that provides a glimpse into how they were able to redefine the heights of professional tennis. Spoiler alert: their barely comprehensible success was no accident.

Questions have circulated about why the film, which chronicles the rise of one of the most remarkable pairs of female athletes ever seen, is centered around a man.

Setting aside the Williams sisters’ wish that the film center around and honor their father, it is evident within the first two minutes why Richard Williams (Will Smith) is a worthy subject in his own right. Before the opening musical sequence is over, he declares that he “wrote… a 78-page plan for their whole career before they was [sic] even born,” foreshadowing his determined and calculating approach to parenting his youngest daughters. The role of Richard Williams seems almost hand-crafted for Will Smith and allows him to do two of the things he does best: playing a doting father who persists against hard luck and unwelcoming opponents, and being hilarious. This is far from Smith’s first attempt as a bullish, protective onstage father; indeed, his performance is reminiscent of his role as a struggling single father in The Pursuit of Happyness [sic]. In a wardrobe of short shorts and with the full power of his comedic and dramatic prowess, Smith aces his role.

Williams is visibly warm towards his daughters: between choruses of “yes, Daddy” in response to his instructions, there is no shortage of smiles and laughter. He attempts to shield the girls from threats, both general (“the streets”) and specific (the neighborhood boys who frequent the Compton public tennis courts), even as he actively combats those enemies. Smith masterfully conveys the pain of a father with the weight of several futures in his hands. Seeing what he silently endures on behalf of his daughters and their future, it is impossible to not dream Richard Williams’ dream or not rejoice at the vindication that we know is coming.

The audacity and relentlessness with which Williams identifies and approaches all the big names in tennis seems to be the engine driving the girls’ dreams. Although we feel Williams’ frustration and discouragement in the face of rejection — aided by Smith’s signature smile-through-the-pain grimace — he is undeterred. As news of his daughters’ talent spreads, he finds himself fending off calls and meetings from agents. He spits in the face of race- and class-based condescension and drives a hard bargain, calmly walking away from unsatisfactory offers. It is delightful to watch Williams negotiate with Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). After agreeing that his daughters will move to Florida to train with Macci, Williams throws in a surprise condition: the entire family must accompany them. Without batting an eyelid, he secures his family’s ticket out of Compton and their financial future. We should know by then that Williams does his research, and yet his boldness still manages to surprise.

Venus and Serena Williams are portrayed by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively. The highlight of their performances is their depiction of the bond between Venus and Serena, who are often seen resting on each other’s shoulders, sharing an inside joke, or lovingly echoing each other’s words. Their competitiveness is evident from their very first appearance onscreen, when they race each other to deliver phone books on their block.

Even in the age of debates about tiger parents, helicopter parents, and other variants of over-parenthood, it is hard to argue with Williams’ approach due to a simple inconvenient fact: it worked, producing not only the stars that he dreamed of, but also well-rounded daughters who seem genuinely happy on and off the court, as well as that most elusive prize: an intact parent-child relationship. Nonetheless, Zach Baylin, the screenwriter, creates room for critique, painting a balanced portrait of Williams as determined yet still plagued by fear and insecurity. The tension in Williams’ marriage is conveyed by disagreements over the direction of Venus’ career and snippets of insight into other areas of discontent.

The counterbalance to the Williams’ aggressive patriarch is Oracene “Brandy” Price (formerly Williams). She is portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis, who embraces the role of unmistakably fierce mother and devoted wife. In public she is quietly supportive, but any questions about her ability to protect are dispelled by her firm rebukes of her husband, as well as her telling-off of a nosy neighbor.

Price is the voice of reason, cautioning Williams at the inflection point where the girls cannot progress further without professional coaching. She is also instrumental in Venus’ developing sense of agency, finally breaking her husband’s obstinate determination to hold Venus back from competition. Oracene’s role in letting her daughter fly is lasting; by the time the family meets with a Nike representative on the eve of Venus’ professional debut, Williams is able to resist his instincts to act without consultation, instead declaring that Venus will make her own decision about the Nike contract.

The family’s relationships drive much of the first half of the film, but there’s also the tennis itself. Though director Reinaldo Marcus Green confirmed the use of tennis doubles, Sidney and Singleton, who went through intense training to learn tennis (including the Williams sisters’ signature styles), are convincing in their on-court scenes.

The film’s athletic spotlight falls squarely on Venus. Our first “wow” moment is watching Venus after Williams talks his way into a one-on-one session with Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who also coaches tennis greats such as John McEnroe. For the first time we glimpse the magic that has come to define these two women and that secured their place on the world stage. As they arrive back home, Venus casually announces to her anxiously waiting mother and siblings, “we got a coach!” sending them into rapturous celebration. These four words propel the remainder of the film and their real-life careers.

King Richard culminates in Venus’ professional debut, with an exhilarating victory over Shaun Stafford, followed by a nail-biting defeat by the world number one, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. The loss is made all the more painful by the fact that Williams is leading before an excruciatingly long bathroom break by her opponent that causes her to lose confidence. This match that Williams “should have won” nevertheless catapults her to instant stardom. Outside the stadium she is met by a mob of fans, with several young Black girls front and center.

All in all, the miracle of the film, and of the Williams’ true story, is in how Williams seems to have manifested an inconceivable outcome on the strength of mere belief. This belief was symbolized in a single detail: throughout the film, Williams addresses his daughters with both first and last names, as if willing them to become the household names they are today. Even during casual practice sessions, he repeats their full names as a constant affirmation: “Venus Williams.” “Serena Williams.”

“Remember that name,” he often shouts to passersby and Venus’ competitors alike, presciently offering her autograph long before anyone knows its value.

We have, and we will.