King Richard (2021), about the father of tennis superstars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton), doesn’t end as most sport biopics do — with a victory. It ends with a defeat. The scene has the makings of a dramatic finale. Venus’s family has backed her, through her early teens, as she — unknown in the global circuit — thrashed rival after rival, on court after court. Now, in her first match against a top seed, they expect nothing less. It’s supposed to be the cinematic version of a crescendo.
Venus powers through the first set. But her rival takes the next— then the match. Venus is crushed. Yet as she, her father Richard Williams (Will Smith), mum Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis), and sisters leave the deserted court, they hold their heads high, having come this far. Outside though, it isn’t as deserted. Excited fans crowd the exit to cheer the valiant “loser”. They can already see the “winner” she’ll become. They’ve come to shake her hand, take pictures, get her autograph. Finally, she’s in the big league. Her and her sisters’ lives won’t be the same again. The man behind that moment? Richard.
Some critics carp about the film belittling the role the women played in their own achievements, booing it as an orgy of male chauvinism, a swaggering ode to “male bravado” from a male director (Reinaldo Marcus Green), a male screenwriter (Zach Baylin), and a male producer (Smith) who also stars in the film. But if you’re looking for a movie about the sisters and their trip to stardom, as some critics mistakenly did, it’s yet to be made. This one’s resolutely about their father and his struggle that made theirs count, and why he’s a beacon to other fathers like him, wrestling with their own flaws.
However, Baylin, Green, and Smith don’t allow Richard to overwhelm. Instead, you see a man who’s used to being beaten, upstaged, sidelined. In the first three minutes Richard is ignored or mocked by prospective coaches for talking up black girls in a white girl’s sport. “You ever think about basketball?” one says with a smirk. When he tries to get gangs of boys loitering and leering on court fences to lay off his girls so they can concentrate, he’s nearly pistol-whipped.
In critical moments, Brandy looms as large as Richard does. She deals with envious neighbors as firmly as he does, eggs him on when his plans plateau, steps in to cheer and steer Serena when a top-notch coach agrees to take only Venus on. She eviscerates Richard for being selfish and headstrong, reminding him of the difference she’s made in the lives of the girls, not just their tennis. She’s the one who insists that he’s delaying taking the girls into confidence as they get older. She’s the one who calls out his “stay humble” lecture. No, it’s not about the girls, she says, it’s just his ego in disguise. It’s out of fear of losing good things that he chides the girls for even the tiniest of celebrations; for example, yelping in the back of his van after a match victory)
Minutes before Venus’s big match, Brandy, braiding her hair, asks both girls if they remember what Sojourner Truth said at Seneca Falls. “Ain’t I a woman?” they answer, laughing in the warmth of her confidence in them. “What does that mean to you?” Brandy asks. “That she’s strong and that she can do anything,” Serena responds. “Exactly,” Brandy says. “That she was a young Black woman just like you…and…deserves to be seen…deserves to be heard…tonight I want you to remember who you are, remember where you came from. Stand tall and be proud.”
The girls are in a female sports league all right, but contrary to some opinions, they battle and best men all the time; louts from the locality who see nothing but easy game in ‘skirts’, coaches and sponsors with one eye on their growing mastery, another on the riches their mastery promises anyone within volleying distance. But it’s the battle with their father they relish the most, at times deliberately — infuriatingly — holding them back, at other times letting them rip. Not quite the fixation on “male bravado” some critics complain about.
Frankly, Baylin’s Richard is everything a father shouldn’t be— cranky, domineering, possessive. After all, he grew up in impoverished Black neighborhoods, their boys and men “running from the Klan, white boys or police,” weighed down by joblessness, drugs, alcoholism, domestic violence, gangsterism. It’s against these deeply bred instincts that Richard tries to set an example to his kids. His philandering aside, he just about hangs on by his fingernails on other fronts, or else his family may have been ravaged by evils he was trying to escape since his adolescence.
What drives him? His lifelong shame of being cast aside. It shapes his steely resolve to see that it never happens to his daughters. When a neighbor upbraids him for his obsessive-compulsive “train in the rain” regimen, he shoots back, “they need to work as hard as they need to, to stay off these streets.” Everyone repeatedly tells him that he’s wrong to keep Venus and Serena from playing Juniors, from accepting “hungry” agents, from grabbing lucrative deals. And he takes what naysayers throw at him, on the jaw or chin or wherever he needs to take it. As gatekeeper of their thoughts, words, actions, he tries to protect the girls from negativity that haunts them like a shadow.
One scene has Richard “pitching” his prodigies to tennis player and instructor Vic Braden (Kevin Dunn) in the hope of securing an expert who can take them to the next level. “This deal that you’re asking for, all this for free…no one’s taking that bet,” Braden says patronizingly after watching Richard’s little promo video, exasperated he has to explain it at all. “Tennis is a technical sport. Probably the most and if you haven’t grown up around the game, then…It’s like the violin. It takes hours and hours a day, year after year of expensive, expert instruction just to hold the thing right. And even then, even for a family with unlimited financial resources, the chances of achieving the kind of mastery and success you’re talking about — with one kid, let alone two — that’s like asking someone to believe you got the next two Mozarts in your house…It’s…very unlikely. I’m sorry…Maybe you’ll prove me wrong.”
Guess what? Richard proves Braden and everyone else wrong. That’s worth saluting, especially if you consider his defeatist, fatalist upbringing. Heroically, Richard picks the “straight and narrow” for his girls, steering clear of every shortcut offered, consistently drilling his stubbornness into them. He doesn’t resist commercialization of their talents— he merely insists on terms that honor their true worth. It’s because he set the bar so high that as his girls grow into women and take charge of their lives, it stays high. In no way does Baylin’s screenplay undermine the doggedness, athletic prowess, hand-eye-leg coordination, mind over matter that the girls go on to show, decade after decade, on every contested tennis surface in the world. It merely shows their father guiding their first steps, no less crucial because they were only their first.
King Richard lacks the entertainment value of today’s blockbusters. Why then, is it such a welcome inspiration to girls and boys, fathers and mothers, of any race or class, in or out of sport? It places respect, restraint, resilience at the heart of success rather than “success” itself (the mere piling on of medals, money and mass adulation). A profound lesson to an age where competitiveness often doubles up as competence. Women and children who live with a temperamental, dominant male figure are already vulnerable to frayed tempers or physical outbursts. Doubly so, the fragility of those in poor, racially marginalized homes, utterly dependent on men, imprisoned by their vices. Baylin’s screenplay speaks movingly to those men, who have it in them to be different, to refuse to be a victim of circumstance, to turn around their families’ lives.
For sports kids in it for the long haul, King Richard places family support above everything: gear, kit, courts, coaches, trainers, sparring partners. Green’s camera lingers on the arduous ascent rather than the satisfying scaling of a summit. You see more of the trip to the practice court than the court itself. You see how hard it must have been to practice at all, let alone practice right. You see him bundling the kids into his van each morning, getting them all shook up with excitement before practice, sweeping the night’s leaves off the court surface.
“Who ready to work?” Richard hollers. The girls holler back in unison, “We’re ready Daddy!” A friend passing by shouts, “King Richard, don’t ever get much rest, do you?” Richard smiles back, “Don’t nothing come to a sleeper, but a dream.” Sadly, Smith’s unbecoming conduct this year stole much of the glory of his first Oscar win. That shouldn’t detract from how convincingly he portrays Richard’s courage, clarity, character, conviction; one of the unlikeliest of heroes. Sure, Smith’s delivered performances worthier of an Oscar, but this one’s no less important. He, along with Green and Baylin, also ought to be equally proud of the rest of their superb main cast— Ellis, Sidney, Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal.
King Richard isn’t a movie about winners. It’s about those dreaming of winning, on a court or off it. Green’s abiding image of Richard, is him, scruffy, shouldering a sling-bag, leading his girls to a tournament somewhere, a half-smile on his lips, a smile on theirs. His mind’s not on tennis. It floats above them, to lightly touch a little dream cloud that only he can see. He doesn’t wish that one day they’ll see and touch it too, he knows they will.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.