Review: ‘King Richard,’ starring Will Smith

November 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in “King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“King Richard”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in the early-to-mid-1990s, mainly in California and Florida, the dramatic film “King Richard” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Coming from an underprivileged background, Richard “Richie” Williams becomes the first tennis coach of his daughters Venus and Serena, but his unorthodox methods often clash with the traditions of the elite world of tennis.

Culture Audience: “King Richard” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Will Smith and the real-life Venus Williams and Serena Williams, as well as people who are interested in well-acted sports movies about people who triumph against the odds.

Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Will Smith and Tony Goldwyn in King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The dramatic film “King Richard” is both a tribute and a feel-good Hollywood version of how Richard “Richie” Williams guided his daughters Venus and Serena to tennis superstardom. The movie is set in the early-to-mid-1990s, at the beginning of Venus’ and Serena’s tennis careers. The tennis matches in the story focus more on Venus’ rise to tennis glory, since her championships came before Serena’s.

In the role of Richard Williams, Will Smith gives a very charismatic performance as a flawed but loving and determined father. The movie shows in abundance how Richard Williams’ stubbornness was both an asset and a liability when he became the person who had the biggest impact on Venus’ and Serena’s respective tennis careers. As it stands, this movie is told from Richard’s male and very domineering perspective.

What saves this movie from being unchecked worship of patriarchy is that it gives credit to Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Venus and Serena’s mother, winningly played by Aunjanue Ellis) as being an underrated, positive force in the family. Oracene (who was a nurse when this story took place) was the one who held the family together in their toughest times. She was also the intelligence behind some of the crucial decisions that were made when Venus and Serena were underage children. If Richard was the “king” of the family, then Oracene was undoubtedly the “queen.”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, “King Richard” doesn’t shy away from some of the controversial aspects of Richard Williams’ life, nor does the movie portray him as saintly. But the title of the movie says it all: The intention of “King Richard” is to give Richard Williams the same level of respect as the tennis stars who are treated as sports royalty. It’s a bit of a stretch, considering that Richard wasn’t the only coach that Venus and Serena ever had.

The movie acknowledges that Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton) had plenty of other people who helped them along the way. There are moments when “King Richard” puts Richard Williams a little too much on a pedestal for being a “prophet” who predicted, when Venus and Serena were in elementary school, that Venus and Serena would become phenomenal tennis champs. Much ado is made about his 78-page plan where he had made these predictions. The movie also depicts how Richard filmed homemade videos as electronic press kits to promote Venus and Serena.

Lots of parents have grandiose plans for their children, but it helps if those kids have the talent for whatever the parents are motivating them to do. This movie could have had a little more insight into the talent that make Venus and Serena so special, as well as more information on when they started showing an interest in tennis. “King Richard” starts off with Venus at approximately age 11 and Serena at approximately age 10, with Richard as their “tough love” coach, already practicing on run-down tennis courts in their working-class hometown of Compton, California. At the time, Richard worked the night shift as a security guard.

The movie makes it look like all Richard had to do in the earliest days of their tennis career was to get Venus and Serena to practice a lot, in order to put the two sisters on the path to becoming great tennis players. But did Venus and Serena start with that passion for tennis, or were they pushed into it? The movie never says, because Richard (as the protagonist) is the main focus of the story. (It should be noted that Smith is also one of the producers of “King Richard.”) There are countless tennis parents who do the same things that Richard did to prepare their kids to become professional tennis players, but we don’t hear about them because their tennis kids just aren’t talented.

In the movie, Oracene (who was a widow when she married Richard in 1980) is the one who tells Richard that practicing on inferior tennis courts with substandard tennis rackets would get Venus and Serena nowhere, no matter how much hard work they did. Oracene is the one who motivates Richard to make the right connections in the elite world of tennis, where you need the kind of money that’s required to pay for training and entry fees into top tennis tournaments. However, the Williams family couldn’t afford these fees at the time. It’s at this point in the movie that Richard starts to transform himself into a maverick wheeler dealer in the tennis world.

He’s an unlikely tennis maverick. From the opening scene, the movie makes it clear that Richard’s English grammar skills aren’t very good, and he comes from a rough-and-tumble background. In a voiceover, Richard describes the type of upbringing he had: “Tennis was not a game peoples played. We were too busy running from the [Ku Klux] Klan.” (Richard was born in 1942 in Shreveport, Louisiana.)

Later in the movie, Richard tells his daughters: “When I was your age, I had to fight someone every day,” which is why he says that doesn’t get as fazed by setbacks as other people might be. The issues of racial differences and social-class inequalities are ever-present in the movie because a huge part of Venus’ and Serena’s success story is about how they became champions in a sport that’s been accessible mainly to white people who can afford it.

The Williams family members who are also depicted in the movie are Oracene’s three daughters from her first marriage: Tunde Price (played by Mikayla Bartholomew), Isha Price (played by Daniele Lawson) and Lyndrea Price (played Layla Crawford). (In real life, Venus, Serena and Isha are among the executive producers of “King Richard.”) When this movie takes place, the Williams household consists of Richard, Oracene, Venus, Serena, Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea. The girls are seen being being playful and happy around each other, doing things such as karaoke-type talent shows in their home when they spend time together.

However, “King Richard” has fairly shallow portrayals of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea as nothing but characters whose main purpose in life is to agree with Richard and cheer on Venus and Serena when needed. In a household of five sisters, the sisters are never seen arguing with each other, or having jealousy issues because a parent seems to favor one child over another. This lack of sibling conflict is very unrealistic. The movie doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that Richard’s single-minded focus on making Venus and Serena tennis champs surely came at a cost to his relationship with his stepdaughters, who must have felt treated differently by him.

Even in the best of circumstances, “King Richard” makes it look like Richard didn’t think his stepdaughters were worthy of the same type of attention that he was giving to Venus and Serena. Richard briefly mentions that he thinks that his other daughters in the household are “future doctors and lawyers,” but if he spent any time supporting his stepdaughters’ career goals, the movie never shows it and never shows what those goals were. “King Richard” doesn’t make an effort to distinguish the personalities of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea, because the movie just makes them background characters in the Richard Williams show.

The only time Richard is showing individual “protective dad” attention to one of his stepdaughters is in an early scene in the movie where 16-year-old Tunde is watching Venus and Serena practice on a Compton tennis court. Richard and his other stepdaughters are there too. Some guys in their 20s are nearby. One of them, who’s named Bells (played by Craig Tate), tries to flirtatiously talk to Tunde, who seems uncomfortable with his attention. She quickly walks away from him when Richard sees what’s going on and tells her to get away from this leering stranger. Richard steps in and orders Bells to leave Tunde alone because she’s only 16 and not interested in dating him.

In response, Bells turns into a thug and punches Richard hard enough for Richard to fall to the ground. Richard gets up and walks away, but all five of the girls have witnessed this assault while waiting in Richard’s Volkswagen van. When he gets in the van and he’s asked if he’s okay, that’s when Richard says he had to fight someone every day when he was the same ages as his daughters. “And I didn’t have no daddy to stand in the way,” he adds. “They’re going to respect y’all.”

It won’t be the last time Richard takes a beating. He gets beat up physically, emotionally and mentally in various ways during his unstoppable efforts to make Venus and Serena among the greatest tennis players of all time. He gets plenty of rejections, of course. And he’s openly ridiculed for his decision to take Venus and Serena out of junior league tennis tournaments, so that Venus and Serena could focus on their education and go directly to the professional leagues. He often annoys people with his blunt approach, because he can be arrogant.

Richard is not a smooth talker, but the one characteristic that defines Richard in his key to his success is persistence. He’s well-aware that he doesn’t come from an educated, privileged and well-connected background. But that’s exactly why he’s so hungry for the success that he wants for Venus and Serena. He’s also fiercely proud and supportive of Venus and Serena, even if they lose a match. At least that’s how the movie portrays him.

Because of Richard’s persuasive finagling, Venus and Serena sign on with their first professional coach: Paul Cohen (played by Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus and Serena for free because he believes in their talent and wants a cut of any prize money they will eventually win. For a while, Oracene helped RIchard with coaching duties for Serena when Cohen initially said he would only coach one of the sisters for free, and Richard decided it would be Venus. Later, Venus and Serena sign on with coach Rick Macci (played by Jon Bernthal), who agrees to relocate the entire Williams household to Macci’s home base in Florida’s Palm Beach County, where he pays for all of their living expenses and buys them the house where they live.

Macci is also motivated by getting a percentage of the millions that he thinks Venus and Serena will eventually earn. At the time, the Rick Macci International Tennis Academy (in Delray Beach, Florida) was best known for training tennis star Jennifer Capriati (played by Jessica Wacnik), who was an idol of Venus and Serena. Macci is shocked and dismayed when the investment he thought he made in Venus and Serena as future junior league champs turns out to be funding for Venus and Serena to not go on the junior league circuit after all.

It’s because Richard didn’t want his future tennis champs to get burned out on the junior league circuit. Richard tells Macci of this plan after Richard got what he wanted in their contract. Richard made the then-controversial and unheard-of decision to take Venus and Serena out of the junior leagues (the traditional route for tennis players to turn pro), so they could go to school like “normal kids” while training to go straight into the professional leagues.

Richard is further convinced he made the right decision when he sees the scandalous downfall of Capriati, beginning with her 1994 arrest for marijuana possession. The arrest exposed many of Capriati’s personal problems, which she has since largely blamed on the pressures and burnout of her junior league tennis career. Many people doubted that Venus and Serena could turn pro in their mid-teens, but Venus and Serena proved the naysayers wrong.

In addition to Capriati, other real-life tennis players are depicted by actors in brief appearances in the movie. They include John McEnroe (played by Christopher Wallinger), Pete Sampras (played by Chase Del Rey) and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (played by Marcela Zacarias), who is Venus’ opponent in the movie’s big tennis showdown. McEnroe and Sampras are seen training with Cohen during one of Richard’s first meetings with the coach. Don’t expect any of these other tennis stars to have any meaningful lines of dialogue in the movie. Each person only says a few sentences.

In the movie, Richard is depicted as being a proverbial “helicopter dad” who hovers during practice and tries to tell coaches Cohen and Macci how to do their jobs. The movie demonstrates in these scenes that these coaches only tolerated Richard because of Venus’ and Serena’s talent, not because these coaches genuinely liked Richard as a friend or respected him as a business person. Macci, who’s more emotional than Cohen, isn’t afraid to express his anger at feeling deceived or frustrated by Richard. Both coaches are the friendliest to Richard when it’s about how they can make money off of Venus and Serena.

The movie tends to gloss over the fact that for all of Richard’s big talk, the money and connections of coaches such as Cohen and Macci were what really opened important doors for Venus and Serena. Richard was a package deal with Venus and Serena. We’ll never know how differently Richard might have been treated by some of these people if Venus and Serena weren’t his underage children at the start of their tennis careers.

In other words, if Venus and Serena weren’t underage children under Richard’s legal control, would he have been as successful in launching their careers? The movie implies the answer: Probably not, because less people in the tennis industry would’ve tolerated him and his admittedly alienating ways.

However, it’s precisely because Richard was the father of Venus and Serena that he protected them in ways that many coaches or managers probably would have not protected them. The issue of race cannot be underestimated because Venus and Serena got “real talk” from Richard about the racism they would experience in the sport of tennis, which has a reputation for being elitist and catering mainly to white people. As such, one of the movie’s obvious “Oscar bait” clips is a scene where a tearful Richard tells Venus in a pep talk about her groundbreaking role in professional tennis: “You’re not just going to be representing you. You’re going to be representing every little black girl on Earth!”

Venus and Serena are portrayed as polite, hardworking children who have no other interests besides tennis and hanging out with their sisters. In the movie, Richard is shown discouraging Venus and Serena from getting too close to kids outside of their family. When Richard wants a “yes” answer from his daughters, they answer, “Yes, Daddy,” like robotic kids on command. Richard expects Venus and Serena to tell him he’s their best friend when he asks. Venus complies with the answer Richard wants to hear, but Serena says Venus is her best friend first.

It’s all played for laughs and feel-good cheer. But some of this banter just seems a little too phony, giving the impression that a lot of the real story is left out about how Richard would lose his temper and say harmful things to Venus and Serena. It’s hard to believe this movie’s rosy portrayal that Richard never really yelled hurtful things to Venus and Serena, when every hard-driving, tough-talking coach does that one point or another to people whom the coach is training. The perspectives of Venus and Serena are not given much importance in this movie, except when it comes to how they’re going to win tennis matches.

For example, viewers never learn what Venus and Serena liked to study in school or what types of friends they made in school, even if the movie makes it look like Richard was the type of father who didn’t want his underage daughters to invite any friends to visit them in their home. The movie never shows how the family celebrated milestones such as Venus’ and Serena’s birthdays, or when they graduated from middle school to high school. It’s a strange omission, considering that in real life, Richard got a lot of criticism precisely because he wanted Venus and Serena to have “normal” school experiences at that age instead of going on tennis tours.

The movie’s erasure of Venus’ and Serena’s childhood experiences that aren’t related to tennis or family all goes back to the patriarchal purpose of the movie: Showing how Richard programmed Venus and Serena on how to be tennis champs, not how to prepare them for life after tennis. There have been several documentaries about Venus and Serena where the two sisters openly admit that they will have a difficult time dealing with life when they both retire from tennis.

And how hard was Richard on Venus and Serena? The movie hints that people had concerns. There’s a scene where a police officer and a government social worker go to the Williams home in Compton to investigate a complaint that Venus and Serena were being abused because of all the rigorous training that Richard made them do.

Richard and Oracene are naturally insulted and defensive. They deny any abuse, and nothing comes of the complaint. The movie makes it look like a jealous neighbor named Ms. Strickland (played by Erika Ringor) is behind the complaint, but you have to wonder if that neighbor character was created in the movie as a villainous stand-in for well-meaning people in real life who had concerns about Richard’s parenting skills.

Whether or not there was any abuse, the family did have serious problems, which is acknowledged in one of the movie’s best scenes. It’s when Oracene confronts Richard for letting his ego stifle Venus’ wishes to play in the professional leagues at the age of 14. Oracene and Richard have an argument, which leads to Oracene verbally ripping into Richard for abandoning the family he had with his first wife and not seeming to care about having a relationship with the children he left behind in the divorce. (Richard had five biological kids and one stepchild with his first wife Betty Johnson, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1973.)

During this argument, Oracene reminds Richard that he’s had a string of failed businesses because he gave up too quickly when things got a little too hard for him. It’s easy to read between the lines, even though the movie doesn’t come right out and say it: Venus and Serena were Richard’s last-ditch attempt to get rich after he failed at starting his own businesses. He needed their talent because his own skills as an entrepreneur were questionable at best.

In the movie’s zeal to put Richard on a “prophet pedestal” and to make Oracene and Richard look like a loving couple that will stay together “’til death do us part,” the movie’s epilogue leaves out this reality: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. In 2010, Richard married his third wife Lakeisha Juanita Graham (who’s young enough to be his daughter), they had a son, and then the marriage ended in divorce in 2017. Maybe the “King Richard” filmmakers think that the public shouldn’t care about these details of Richard being a failure as a husband because Venus and Serena turned out to be rich and famous.

Despite the flaws in the movie’s screenplay, “King Richard” has exemplary acting from Smith, who gives one of his best movie performances as the gruff but compelling Richard. Sidney’s portrayal of Venus gets more of an emotional journey than Singleton’s portrayal of Serena, who is mostly in Venus’ shadow at this point in the sisters’ lives. (In real life, Serena would later emerge has having a more assertive personality than Venus.)

In the movie, Richard explains to Serena that he planned for Venus to become a star first. Richard predicts Venus will be ranked No. 1 in the world before Serena achieves that same goal, but Serena will eventually be considered by many to be the “greatest of all time” in tennis. He tells Serena: “I knew you was rough, you was tough, and you was a fighter.”

Sidney and Singleton both adeptly handle the movie’s tennis-playing scenes. A big highlight of the movie is an emotionally gripping, climactic scene at the 1994 Bank of the West Classic tournament in Oakland, California. One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t fall into the usual clichés of how sports dramas usually end. However, the tropes of a “tough love” father/coach are played to the hilt.

As a sports movie, “King Richard” might disappoint some viewers who are expecting more screen time devoted to tennis matches. But more tennis matches on screen should be expected if Venus and Serena were the central characters. “King Richard” never lets you forget that the central character is someone who was never a pro tennis player: Richard Williams. However, the movie has the grace to admit that Venus and Serena turned out to be extraordinary people because of their mother Oracene too.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “King Richard” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.