TO FATHER, WITH LOVE
Will Smith gives us a first-rate dad in this biopic of the man who helped turn Venus and Serena Williams into champions
Richard Williams — tennis coach, father of Venus and Serena Williams, and a noted celebri-dad in his own right — grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the mid-20th century. His 2014 memoir, Black and White: The Way I See It, is full of stories: hiring loiterers to drive customers to his family’s produce garden, dressing up in a Klan uniform as a kid, seeing his best friend lynched. The one story we hear him tell about his past in King Richard, however, is about how he felt like he’d been left to the wolves by his father. It’s why he does everything for his family — and, by implication, of how his daughters came to be the phenomenon that they are.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard is set in the early Nineties — the Rodney King beating is on TV — when Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton), and their three sisters are still youngsters. Richard (Will Smith) works as a night guard; his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), is a nurse. During the day, he hustles to find coaches to take a chance on these young women. It becomes a joke to see white men, specifically the likes of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci ( Jon Bernthal), riding up into Compton, getting a taste of how the other side lives. But it’s a joke that comes with an asterisk. When drive-by shootings become a trope on the way to other peoples’ Horatio
Algeresque success stories, something is amiss.
The real irony is that the movie’s depictions of the white spaces that the family learns to navigate feel more vital and detailed. Stereotypes are given a twinge of satire, notably in scenes of Venus’ white competitors storming off the courts like entitled brats. The country clubs with their pools and highend burgers, the hoity-toity
tennis camps, the home the Williams’ are given to live in while training: All of it stands in for the whiteness of the entire sport and the ease with which money becomes an expectation. They don’t seem to stand a chance. Except we know how this story ends.
Despite its well-worn triumphant arc, King Richard is good at giving credence to the idea of Williams as dedicated to his daughters to the point of being just north of nutty. The movie-humble kookiness of Smith’s performance, in line with the relatable Will we met in films like The Pursuit of Happyness, heightens the implausibility of it all. As he’s told time after time, the man’s professional aspirations for Venus and Serena are ambitious to the point of stubbornness. You don’t have to be from Compton for the dream of winning Wimbledon to feel like a long shot. But if you are from Compton, the movie says . . .
Still, Williams is quite the personality, running his life like a one-man PR firm and management team, exercising care and control over his daughters’ lives that stand in stark contrast to the gotta-win white parents on every side. The media had a way of rendering him into a circus freak, what with his off-color (some would say candid) remarks about race and money, and his brash decisions to flout the traditional path to tennis stardom. To those who doubted him, Williams was a huckster. King Richard almost transforms him into a saint.
The admirably sincere movie is at its weakest in allowing Smith to play him like a saint, even as the screenplay brings him down to size when it counts. Better is Smith as Richard the Unpredictable, the Overbearing, the Goofy. The Richard who makes his family watch Cinderella to quiz them on its life lessons, the Richard who preaches humility yet fails to practice it. The Richard whose life avails us of a movie hero too robust for a feel-good, old-fashioned I-laughed-I-cried kind of film.
But that’s what King Richard is — and it’s good at being what it is. It’s generous with its character complexity in ways that actors, to say nothing of the Oscar voters eager to reward their work, can’t resist. The movie’s brightest idea is that, flawed or not, Richard does what he does on behalf of the young Black women he’s raising. Yes, it says, these women are oncein-a-lifetime athletes. But who are we, if not products of the sacrifices — or lack thereof — of our parents?