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Based on the true story of Venus and Serena Williams and their impresario father, King Richard is a story about the conviction and determination of a parent who believed his daughters would become the world’s greatest tennis players…and the odds he had to overcome to turn his faith into reality.
Will Smith plays the title role and serves as an executive producer, alongside Venus and Serena themselves. The cast also features Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney as young Venus and Serena, Oscar-nominated Aunjanue Ellis as their mom, Oracene, and veteran actors Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal as their coaches.
King Richard differs from previous biographies focusing on sports and race—42, starring the late, great Chadwick Boseman, comes to mind, as well as Ali, also starring Will Smith—because it not only serves as an origin story for two of the most iconic, groundbreaking women athletes, it demystifies and applauds the father who was determined to make them champions.
Many were puzzled by Richard Williams’ press conferences, his antics in the stands, or his contract negotiations. Yet the film makes it clear that Richard was not “crazy.” He was a caring, disruptive visionary in a sport dominated by wealth and whiteness. Richard, a father who dared to dream bigger for Venus and Serena, opted to keep them in cornrows and away from exploitation and low expectations due to their Blackness.
Is King Richard a Hollywood tale? A rags-to-riches story we watch, cheering on our protagonist and rejoicing at the ending? Not exactly. It’s a film that threads the needle through a quilt of scraps made beautiful due to a patchwork of perseverance and faith. The villain is institutional, structural, and individual racism too often closing doors and handing someone Black a mop or broom. Instead, Richard handed his daughters rackets and gave them the skills and emotional resilience to dominate on and off the tennis court. Against a backdrop of stray bullets, he took no chances. Every moment of his daughters’ lives became a teachable moment.
In scenes at a cramped kitchen table or on a tattered couch, the film delivers equal parts insight and affirmation to counteract the negativity and instability that plagued the Williams’ early life in Compton. A ride in a van transports Richard and his daughters from a wilderness of pain, fear, drugs, and guns, to a court where he and his daughters have full control. Richard knew the game of life in South Central. He was down love-40, never getting the education or job or respect he wanted, but as a coach to his daughters, he instilled in them the ultimate winning instinct.
While the evidence of racial trauma is omnipresent, shaping their father, their mother, and the girls’ fierce determination, it’s treated with subtlety throughout the film. Screenwriter Zach Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green mitigate racism to a subplot, allowing a hero’s arc of perseverance to shine through. The audience doesn’t need a preachy monologue about absent fathers and the intergenerational trauma present in “the hood;” instead it’s short-handed to a brief but poignant fist fight, as secretly jealous drug dealers displace their grief over their own fathers, or it’s an argument with a neighbor. Though its understated, we see both the systemic racism and the microagressions the Williams family had to navigate from their early lives to the very top of their game. From the lack of opportunities in the hood, to the coaches who told Richard to steer his girls toward basketball, to the agents who “congratulated” him for their success “given their background,” the William’s family was counted out or underestimated because they were Black.
Smith’s Oscar-nominated performance is riveting. He disappears into the role even as he channels his own relationship with his superstar daughter, a connection to the story he’s shared in interviews. It’s a performance that’s boosted by a SAG Ensemble- nominated cast that includes two child actresses, Sidney and Singleton, tasked with showing enough confidence and athleticism to be believable and empathetic as the young tennis stars in training, to the swindling coach Rick Macci (portrayed deftly by Bernthal), who believed in the sisters as he turned a blind eye to the drug abuse of another tennis ingénue (Jennifer Capriati). Aunjanue Ellis’ simmering portrayal of King Richard’s wife Oracene befits a queen (and an Oscar nomination), whether she’s bemoaning her husband’s stubbornness or whims of fancy, stealing a scene in their new kitchen where they should have been at their happiest, or a tender caress wiping tears and blood off his face after he’s assaulted by gang members.
Generations of girls worldwide see themselves in the Williams Sisters. Thanks to King Richard, men around the world can see themselves as celebrated fathers capable of divine manifestation.
A deep and thoughtful look at all of the extraordinary members of the Williams family, King Richard is the rare Oscar caliber film that entertains as it inspires, shedding new light on the lives of two of the most iconic athletes of our time and what they and their parents had to overcome.
Everyone can take away something from this film. It’s great for families, sports fans, Will Smith fans, or anyone curious about the lives of Venus and Serena Williams.
The Watercooler hosted an event last November featuring special guests, including legendary activist and athlete John Carlos, best known for raising his fist at a 1968 Olympic medal ceremony. He gave the film an “A+” and said, “I thought it was outstanding. The GOAT for Black movies coming in.” He added that “when Black people write their story, they write far more of the truth than has been written in the last 100 years in Hollywood.”