Article Thumbnail

‘King Richard’ Celebrates One Hero at the Expense of Two Others

This Oscar-contending sports drama honors the sacrifices Richard Willams made so his daughters Venus and Serena could become tennis champions. But the film’s a little too quick to put a crown on him

Coming up with a good movie title is crucial: It’s among the most important ways to advertise your film and tell audiences what to expect. And, sometimes, studios screw it up. A year ago, Warner Bros. put out Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) before realizing, you know what, nobody knows what “Birds of Prey” is — maybe it would make more sense if we just renamed the damn thing Harley Quinn since Margot Robbie’s character is the only reason anybody would see it in the first place. Not to pick on Warner Bros., but they’ve done it again: This Friday, the studio releases an inspirational drama about tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams and their hard road to stardom. So, naturally, that film is called… King Richard.

There are understandable reasons why King Richard is an appropriate title — mostly, because the movie is chiefly about their father Richard Williams, a simple man with a dream that his girls would be champions. But it’s telling that Warner Bros. has had to position its ads so that potential viewers won’t be thrown by who this King Richard guy is. The movie doesn’t have an official subtitle, but in the TV spots and on some posters, it almost looks like it’s called King Richard: Venus, Serena and a Plan for Greatness. Clearly, the studio knows that audiences might not be as enthused about a Richard Williams biopic as they are a Venus and Serena origin story.

But that marketing readjustment doesn’t change the movie’s fundamental essence. King Richard is an entertaining underdog sports movie, but it keeps flirting with the tougher, even smarter and more thoughtful drama it could have been. Rather than being a story about how a driven man nearly ruined his family because of his own complicated need for his daughters to be great, King Richard mostly wants us to just stand up and cheer. There’s no reason both impulses couldn’t have coexisted in the same film.

Will Smith plays Richard, a working-class father and husband living in Compton who’s very strict with his kids, always teaching them life lessons and instilling in them the value of hard work and humility. He’ll make them hit tennis balls in the rain, he’ll make them watch a movie over and over again if they can’t tell him what the moral of the story was. Richard isn’t verbally or physically abusive to Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), but he’s very much the kind of old-school, tough-love dad that wants his daughters mentally prepared for the challenges of the tennis world. 

As King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green movingly suggests, those challenges weren’t just about dealing with a formidable opponent on the court: As a lower-income Black family in a sport dominated by wealthy white players, the Williamses are constantly at a disadvantage. (When Richard shows video of his daughters’ skills to high-price coaches, they politely inform him that tennis is expensive — maybe Venus and Serena should consider going into basketball?) Because in real life the sisters have ruled the professional ranks for so long — especially Serena, arguably the greatest to ever play the game — it’s easy to forget how unfathomable their rise was at the time. In King Richard we don’t see outward signs of virulent racism, but there’s plenty of microaggressions going around — the silent stares of white families at these Black girls at their club, the lightly patronizing tone instructors adopt when they try to gently break the news to Richard that his daughters don’t have a prayer. Lots of future superstars had to face obstacles along the way — few had as many as Venus and Serena.

The movie-version of the Williams family

Because viewers will know the outcome before the film even begins, it might not seem like there would be much suspense in King Richard. And yet, Green illustrates how the sisters’ success was far from a sure thing. Richard works multiple jobs and gets very little sleep, and without sponsorship or elite coaching, Venus and Serena’s prospects look grim. (Plus, plenty of deluded dads are just convinced their kid is the next big thing, so what should anyone take Richard seriously?) King Richard argues that it took a family all pulling in the same direction for this dream to come true — including Richard’s wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), who’s not out there doing drills with the girls to the same degree that her husband is, but provides a stabilizing force at home. 

I say “stabilizing” because King Richard gets more interesting when it resists putting that crown on Richard’s head. Smith gives the man a dogged resilience that’s matched by an eternal optimism: Richard believes wholeheartedly not only in his daughters but in his ability to convince anyone of their potential greatness. Growing up in Louisiana, where he had run-ins with the KKK, he’s experienced racism all his life, and one suspects that at least part of his drive for Venus and Serena to be champions was that he wanted to shove their success in the face of the bigots he’d endured. But as we’ll soon discover, that’s not the only way in which his daughters’ growing excellence on the junior tour seems to feed into Richard’s own personal agenda. 

Since he started his film career, Smith has always walked with a swagger, often playing cocky characters ready to take on all comers. (Even when he portrayed a humbled, homeless dad in The Pursuit of Happyness, you never doubted that he was going to come out on top.) So his role in King Richard seems tailor-made, allowing Smith to invest his usual confidence into another character who’s been underestimated. 

But there’s a fascinating twist that occurs once Richard starts landing some impressive coaches for his daughters — first, the fictionalized Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and, later, real-life trainer Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) — and then decides that he knows better than them about Venus and Serena’s path to glory. Watching King Richard, you get the distinct impression that, as much as Richard wanted them to be winners, what he really wanted was to be proved right. There’s a chip on the man’s shoulder that’s heavy and has been there for a long time — one no doubt compounded by the hatred he faced as an outspoken Black man in a sport that treated him like an interloper. Nonetheless, that chip may distract him from doing what’s best for his girls. 

Jon Bernthal and Will Smith

In this way, the film enters into a larger conversation about how parents raise their children — and when it’s better to let our kids do what they want rather than us insisting on how they should conduct their lives. Whether it’s child actors or sports prodigies, these questions become even more fraught since the parent has to be careful not to be living vicariously through his kid. Also, how hard do you push them in those very competitive worlds — don’t you need to prepare them for that cutthroat environment? 

In recent years, there’s been so much talk about not bullying young people into excellence — that, in fact, you don’t need to break them down in order to build them up — but Richard’s bullheadedness stands in defiance of that evolving mindset. Again, he’s never abusive, but his belief that Venus and Serena must conduct themselves in certain ways — while still having fun, he’s quick to add — is so rigid that, occasionally, we see them bristle at his tight reins. The movie doesn’t pose the question outright, but it’s one most thoughtful viewers will have: Was Richard’s demanding, sometimes overbearing style what made Venus and Serena… Venus and Serena? 

In other words, was he right and everyone else was wrong in how best to mold them into winners? Much in the same way that we wonder about the impact of Earl Woods’ aggressively hands-on approach on Tiger, King Richard unconsciously asks about the toll Richard put on his family by driving them so hard — and it really is the whole family, highlighted by one very strong scene in which Oracene finally lets him know what it’s like to live with such a taskmaster.

The better version of King Richard would have held that tension, encouraging us to ponder what was selfish about Richard — and, also, whether we would have made movies about him if his daughters hadn’t become superstars. Did the ends justify the means? King Richard has no doubt that they did: The ads proclaim that the film is “[b]ased on the true story that will inspire the world.” 

Without question, the Williams sisters’ saga is astounding, not to mention a rare cheering example of individuals overcoming economic and cultural disadvantages through talent and determination. But, ultimately, King Richard is about Richard Williams, not his daughters. The way the movie crafts its story — drawing off actual events — Richard masterminded not just Venus’ ascension but Serena’s eventual supremacy. He’s not just a brilliant motivator, he’s presented as a genius — the man who got to say, “I told you so” to everyone.  

I respect King Richard’s reminder that superstars don’t emerge fully formed — they’re often shaped by the love and support of their parents. Clearly, Venus and Serena are on board with this film’s thesis considering they’re executive producers, with Serena recently saying, “There are so many ways to tell this story. But I think telling it through my dad was the best way because he had the idea. He knew how to do it.” And it’s worth acknowledging that the movie celebrates a committed, present Black father at a time when two-parent families are hardly the norm. Plus, Smith has said he connected to Richard’s story on a personal level: “[He] reminds me a lot of my father. It was that same generation — men that used to fix everything with their hands. I understood what it was like to live at the edge of survival and to try to sustain a dream.” When fathers sacrifice everything for their families, that’s worth honoring.

Even so, it feels a little strange to celebrate Richard Williams in quite the way this movie does. Sometimes it takes an amazing father to pave the way for their children. But it’s ultimately the children who have to go out there and seize that greatness for themselves. Richard dreamed, but Venus and Serena made that dream reality. In King Richard, the Williams sisters end up being merely loyal subjects in his royal court. 

Do Not Sell My Personal Information