By Wendy Knowlton
3 February 2022
Manufacturing one prodigy, let alone two, seems a risky business. Horror stories abound about tennis parents chasing vicarious glory through the offspring they sacrifice to stardom. All too often the victims of such parental ambition are left burnt out and unprepared for any life beyond the one that fails to fulfil its promise. King Richard, however, tells a very different story.
At first, this seems unlikely. Richard Williams (Will Smith) wrote a detailed roadmap to Wimbledon triumph even before the birth of his daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). For someone who grew up in the shadow of the KKK, denied respect in a world that saw him as inferior, it is no surprise he dreamt of shaking up a lucrative sport with little racial diversity. You would expect the pressure on the girls to meet these expectations to be overwhelming. But despite the rigorous dedication he demands of his daughters, this father doesn’t follow the usual script.
Will Smith gives a charismatic performance as a stubborn, determined and irritatingly persistent man. We see his self-belief let him muscle into a practice session involving tennis greats Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, and demand their coach embrace the opportunity to guide his children because he says they will be champions. The same cheek sees him impose his own instructions over those of the frustrated professionals he bludgeons into submission. We see him withdraw the girls from the junior circuit that forms part of a well-trodden path to success and refuse a multi-million-dollar sponsorship deal, against all rational advice. Unconventional enough to use Disney’s Cinderella as a teaching tool, and arrogant enough to think he knows more about the stance that will work for Venus than top-level coaches, Richard puts everything on the line for his improbable dream. But it all works.
This is a warm and often funny film, that highlights the strength of family and the importance of priorities. The shadow of Jennifer Capriati contrasts with the Williams girls. Where the first is a grand slam semi-finalist at 15 but arrested for drug possession and disenchanted with tennis at 18, the sisters are taken to Disneyland rather than a practice session when it seems more appropriate, and withdrawn from tournaments until they are ready to be more than kids. Sidney and Singleton are convincing as the Williams sisters both on and off the court. The potentially overwhelming patriarchal control of Richard Williams is offset by the girls’ feisty mother Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), who claims credit for Venus’ serve and curbs Richard’s excesses, just as Venus herself demands the right to make decisions from the age of 14.
Some omissions allow the film to portray a largely positive picture of a man who had his faults in real life. But it seems the film is a fairly accurate portrayal of the events that created this unlikely success story. It’s a testament to hard work and commitment, and ultimately, it manages to be both uplifting and inspiring.