This is without a doubt the “feel-good” movie of the year, despite making me feel like a delinquent parent. KING RICHARD stars the hyper-likeable Will Smith as Richard Williams, Venus and Serena’s father who masterminded their careers from conception to world domination.
Papa Williams coached Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton in excellent performances) superstar sister tennis goddesses– from prodigies to pros with a single mindedness that took my breath away. I can only imagine just how hard this dad was to live with. The film gives us glimpses, like the time he threatened to strand them in a dangerous neighborhood to walk home, or when he almost made them watch the animated Disney classic “Cinderella” twice in a sitting just to make sure they got the point about Cinderella’s humility. But his super focus and super ego don’t seem to have factored negatively in the outcome of their triumphant twin journeys.
How did he know what he knew about tennis and life? Exactly what’s in his 78-page master plan to rule the tennis universe? We’re only told that he and his almost saintly wife (a supportive and equally authoritative when she needs to be Aujanue Ellis) were both “athletes.” One anecdote about Richard’s own father, relayed late in the film, is all we have to go on about Richard’s upbringing. Richard is a fait accompli when we meet him, as are the girls, already prodigies in progress and destined for greatness. They never talk back, never question, cheerily obey their parents’ every command, are unfailingly polite, respectful, hardworking, upbeat, devout. It’s “Leave It To Beaver” outta Compton, except Beaver Cleaver is a thug by comparison. And though Venus’ star rose first as the oldest, there’s barely a whisper of competition or jealousy between them.
Though we know how this ends, the movie at 2 hours and 24 minutes holds us, and remarkably, does so by focusing on what is NOT happening on the court. It’s not focused on the girls’ game, their strategy and movement on the surface, how they hold the racket or hit the ball or choose their shots, or get more power in their serve– though there’s enough tennis played to let us know these girls are exciting and skilled. There is some focus on “stance,” to humorous effect as Richard butts heads with the world famous coaches whom he’s won over, all expenses paid. (Jon Bernthal is terrific as the exasperated legendary coach Rick Macci, as is Tony Goldwyn as Paul Cohen who coached John McEnroe and Pete Sampras in a scene that borrows from an amazing real life encounter early in the girls’ training.) It’s all about Mr. Williams’ off-court strategy, and the movie takes the same approach.
There are pivotal moments of character-building that accumulate slow and steady dramatic power as we watch Richard meticulously construct the foundation on which his daughters will stand. We watch Richard take his lumps from local layabouts who try hitting on his daughters and resenting his aspirations. There are scenes at country clubs where cigar-smoking white bigwigs make condescending offers and Richard bluntly calls them out to everyone’s discomfort but his own. As the stakes get higher, Williams remains unmoved by mega financial deals and offers for his girls to play in tournaments until he believes they are on firm footing: patience, education, family. All of this in direct contradiction of the advice of coaches who tell him he doesn’t know what he’s doing and have the trophies to prove it. Holding it all together is Smith’s performance pitched just shy of bravado and insanity, his conviction tempered by easy humor and vulnerability just when he needs it.
What’s clear is that the girls absorbed their dad’s clear-eyed confidence and equanimity, remaining grounded against the corrupting influence of worldly success. Coupled with their unrivaled gifts– part nature, part nurture–they achieved legendary success against all odds. Watch this footage of the real Richard Williams in 1994 interrupting an interviewer he feels is undermining a 14 year old Venus; it speaks volumes about one father’s refusal to serve up his daughters to what we now know would become a ravenous media monster. The scene is replicated almost verbatim in the film and reveals a wise man, both ahead of his time and radically traditional, offering a recipe for “keep[ing} your head when all about you/Are losing theirs…”
KING RICHARD is now playing in theaters and available on HBO Max. Take the Family.