Richard Williams (Will Smith) considers himself less of a regular father, more of a plucky miner, as he’s found two diamonds, his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). He’s planned everything for them, a plan that will not decide but summon their destiny: They just need to show up and shine. Richard doesn’t hope; he believes. He knows that the tennis court is just a metaphor for, and a gateway to, a better bigger world, where his daughters will be invincible champs, breaking the shackles of being “negro” women. But they first need to overcome the sneers of white elites who, like much else in the world, control the world of tennis, too.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard isn’t a linear ‘rags to riches’ story. Like other films of the sub-genre, the drama doesn’t seek to explore, ‘Will they make it?’ Like Richard, we know that the question has already been answered. This movie then isn’t about nurturing geniuses as much as protecting them. A plot point tucked in social commentary: because for these Black girls, one bad choice, one wrong step, can send them back to the ghetto, an omnipresent world that threatens to swallow them.
Race hangs over this film like a foreboding sky. Every small (or big) decision taken by Richard, when seen through a narrow racial lens, can acquire unsettling meanings – even if there’s nothing unsettling about them. At one point, Richard makes his pre-teen daughters practice tennis on a rainy night. This isn’t any other ambition but ‘Black ambition’ – signaling concern – causing their neighbour to call the cops. A street gang harasses the eldest Williams sister, Tunde (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew); when Richard intervenes, he’s thrashed – even threatened to be shot. When he’s had enough, he takes out his gun and walks towards them and, right then, a car pulls up and shoots the perpetrator. Richard knows that when it comes to Black kids, it does not take a village to raise a child; in fact, the village can itself become a roadblock.
So, he overcompensates, carrying with him so much self-belief that it can charge the whole Black America. He makes a 78-page plan for the sisters before they were born. He designs brochures for them, distributing them to coaches. He makes a video tape recording their matches. He interrupts Venus’s practice sessions with Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) – John McEnroe’s coach training her for free – telling his daughter to not close her stance. When he meets a famous agent who, willing to represent Venus, reveals his (latent) racial condescension, Richard farts and walks away.
He isn’t an easy man to like – neither as a husband nor as a father. Less than 30 minutes into the film, you’d think that the word ‘spoilsport’ was made for him; no, he invented the damn thing. When the Williams sisters are bragging about Venus’s win in the car, and deriding her opponent, he drops them on the road and drives away. Why? Because winning should make them “humble”. He quizzes them about a movie’s moral lesson. When they fail to give satisfactory answers, he replays it. He takes important decisions, such as firing Paul, without consulting his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). By not cushioning Richard’s stubbornness and brashness, the movie steers away from a hagiographic portrait, finding its own identity.
Writer Zach Baylin uses a clever trick to realign our expectations: pay close attention to the scenes between Oracene and Richard – just the two of them. You’ll notice that as King Richard progresses, their relationship carves its own arc: Oracene getting more and more bold, standing up for herself and her kids, calling out Richard’s entitlement and narcissism, telling him – and us – that it is not just his but also her family, not just his but also her story. Ellis is excellent, embodying different dualities that make characters people – assertive and playful, confrontational and supportive – making her Oscar nod (for the Best Supporting Actress) very well deserved.
Unlike most sports dramas, King Richard isn’t just about winning a tournament – or winning at all. Because the main prize here is something else: a life of dignity and self-respect, a life that thrives and succeeds even without tennis, a life untainted by streets and drugs. Which is why its most crucial plot turn – Richard denying Venus turning pro for three years, baffling her new coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), experts, and Venus herself, so that she concentrates on her education like a normal kid, ensuring a solid back-up option – makes perfect sense.
King Richard is elevated by its form. Editor Pamela Martin captures sizeable time – especially in the initial junior matches – in just a few scenes, furthering character, maintaining momentum. The tennis games are precisely filmed and cut, producing compelling drama. The camera often stays rooted to the court, capturing both the players in one frame, allowing a few volleys before the first cut, heightening the immersive feel. Like a good sports movie, King Richard appreciates that the main tension lies in the match itself. So, the makers reduce the distraction and pomp – say, primarily building tension via reaction shots or flashy camera angles – and instead focus on the match itself. By doing so, they show a genius in uninterrupted action: Venus’s devastating serves, crushing forehands, gliding feet. We don’t need to be ‘told’ what’s going on; the magic is right in front of us.
And then there’s Smith. A remarkable character on his own – an underdog who can bully the bullies, an expert salesman who can’t be bought – his Richard is unforgettable. He nails the grand bits, reminiscent of his role in The Pursuit of Happyness: encouraging his daughters, berating their ‘buyers’, colliding with the coaches. He’s preternaturally confident, to the point of being rude – a rare for a Black character in a Hollywood biopic. But he also does much more – the little moments when no one is watching, when he shares, listens, cares: bantering with his girls, absorbing his wife’s anger, telling them (again and again) that this world will one day bow down to them. The last bit recurs many times, but it never feels formulaic or tedious or laboured. It just feels like a moment, a conversation, a reckoning.
Talent is of course important in sports, but sometimes you need something else: a cheat code – something that makes you special; something beyond coaching manuals, pep talks, training grunts; something constant and life-affirming. Something you leave your home with, someone you come to home to. With a father like Richard, the matches, the tournaments, the sponsorship deals – the whole obsession with winning, defeating, proving – doesn’t matter as much. Because with a father like Richard, the Williams sisters have already won.
Featured image: A still from the movie King Richard.
This review was first published on The Wire.