Beyond endless hours of practice, extreme dedication, and boundless skill, a significant but little-known secret to Venus and Serena Williams’ unrivaled success lies in their father Richard Williams, who acted as their 24/7 coach and number one supporter.
King Richard follows the story of Richard (Will Smith) as he begins to convince the all-white, upper class tennis world that he is raising two future champions. Starting with the girls’ training days during their early teenage years on the courts of Compton, the film shows viewers how Richard’s intense dedication and uplifting attitude helped Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) progress their tennis skills beyond anything anyone but their parents had imagined for them. Because the movie captures Venus’ early years before going pro, Richard is shown focusing especially on her and his journey to find her a coach.
While serving as a biography of Richard, the film maintains an air of excitement that resembles the experience of watching Venus and Serena on the court themselves. Every time Venus tosses up the tennis ball, the camera swirls around her, and the music builds to a crescendo that releases at the exact moment when she snaps her wrist and sends the ball flying. The thrill and energy of every hit is enough to make viewers want to pick up a racket the moment they leave the theater.
Smith also pulls off an accurate representation of a tough but loving father. At times, Richard’s methods seem questionable, but he always expresses unbridled love for his children. The film makes it clear that the girls are flourishing in their talents largely because of his devotion to their futures.
Smith’s blunt jokes also work perfectly to expose both the discrimination he and his daughters face every time they step foot in a country club and the discomfort the white men around them experience when Richard tries to discuss their unequal treatment.
The careful casting choices clearly pay off with Sidney and Singleton as well. They both perfectly embody two lighthearted yet hardworking sisters. Singleton delivers a nuanced portrayal of the difficulties in supporting her older sister while wanting to shine in her own right. And Sidney masterfully conveys everything Venus must be feeling as a rising star just beginning to feel the pressure of the world’s eyes on her. With the slightest change in expression, Sidney can completely shift the mood of a scene, keeping audiences engaged and focused on her every action.
During a global conference hosted by Warner Bros. Pictures, The Heights was able to hear more about the experience of filming King Richard directly from the cast and crew, including Venus and Serena, who served as executive producers for the film.
Smith spoke on his motivations to portray Richard, specifically recalling a moment 20 years ago when he saw a broadcast interview of Venus. While Venus was being questioned, Richard stepped in to advocate for her and to put the officious interviewer in his place.
“It was like [Venus] had a lion,” Smith said. “And she was so confident and so comfortable that her lion wasn’t going to let anything happen to her. When the opportunity to be a part of this came up, that was the first thing that I remembered. I knew I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like that to the world.”
Venus noted that the film, at its core, is really about family and what can be accomplished through community.
“As a family, you can achieve anything,” Venus said. “And that’s what I really loved about this, is that it’s a family film. Some of us are born with that, and some of us have to create those families, but surrounding yourself with family can take you higher.”
Sidney spoke about her gratitude for the opportunity to learn about Venus through both her preparation for the role and her time in conversation with the tennis star herself.
“Being able to step into Venus’ shoes helped me grow as a young woman, you know,” Sidney said.” “[Venus and Serena] were so humble at such a young age.”
The main issue with King Richard, however, lies in the level of agency and screen time allotted to Richard as opposed to his two daughters. Though the film is purposefully taking a roundabout approach in revealing the secrets behind the Williams sisters’ success, using Richard as a subject seems to leave an unfortunately small time for the women in the film.
Venus, Serena, their sisters, and in particular their mother, Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis), also known as “Brandi,” are undeniably complex and sophisticated characters. A few key scenes explore tensions between Richard and Brandi and others exhibit Venus starting to advocate for herself,but overall, Richard dominates the family story.
If the women in the family had been given more screen time, the film could have given these characters more agency. But instead, Richard makes the decisions in Venus’ life steadily throughout the movie, and the crucial process of Venus taking charge of her own career is largely glossed over.
Beyond this imbalance in screen time, the film is a thoroughly enjoyable watch with tennis matches that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats, even if they already know the details of Venus’ early tennis career. With meaningful discussions on what it means to be a family, masterful performances from every cast member, and a carefully cultivated score, King Richard pulls off the perfect mix of drama, sports, and comedy.
“When I left shooting I kind of just wanted to go back and do it all over again,” Sidney said. “I just can’t wait for the world to see it.”
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures