If there was one person who predicted the legendary tennis careers of Venus and Serena Williams, it would be their father, Richard.
He was so confident, that he claims to have drawn up a 78-page plan for the two of them to become tennis legends. This was before they were even born.
But making this a reality did not come easily for Williams. He ended up juggling a part-time job with coaching his daughters himself on their local courts in Compton.
Now, the new biopic King Richard portrays how he guided Venus and Serena to become tennis superstars against the improbable odds.
King Richard Himself
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film stars Will Smith as Richard. This is Smith’s third role in the sporting biopic genre, after Ali and Concussion.
Richard is portrayed as a single-minded, confident individual, who’s keen to promote, prepare and protect his girls all the time.
But he’s also insecure. It shows in his tendency to reject anyone he feels is trying to undermine his credibility, as some of the sport’s top coaches and agents discover for themselves.
Of course, it should be noted that Venus and Serena, as well as their older half-sister Isha Price (pictured here with Venus), were all involved in producing King Richard and shaping the story it tells.
Indeed, they made sure that the film depicted Richard positively.
“The entire production team, everyone, wanted to tell this hero story of my dad” – Isha Price
Freelance tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg, who writes for The New York Times, feels that King Richard provides a fair portrayal of their story. But he also notes that certain aspects of Richard’s background ended up being left out, which could have made him appear more controversial.
He references the 2001 book Venus Envy by L. Jon Wertheim, which details many examples of Willliams’ divisive nature. It includes the outrageous claim Richard made publicly, that he hid his second wife Oracene ‘Brandy’ Price’s birth control pills, to ensure her pregnancy. This led to Venus being born in 1980.
In the book, Williams was also accused of making antisemitic comments, and is blamed for abandoning his first family before marrying Price. More seriously, it suggests that he was a domestic abuser, with Oracene later admitting to police that he did indeed physically assault her.
“I don’t call Richard my dad. He’s a manipulator.” – Sabrina Williams, Richard’s first daughter from his first marriage, Venus Envy
Rothenberg therefore believes that these traits of Richard should be remembered when going to see the biopic. He says: “The original screenplay referenced his previous marriage and the children he had previously more than the movie’s final cut chose to.”
Sure, it’s possible that his past was simply not discussed with his new family.
But it is certainly worth considering the darker parts of Richard’s character that aren’t on-screen, which comes down to the Williams’ family having editorial control over the film’s content.
The Theme of Race
While the movie tones down Richard’s more colourful comments on racism in the sport, it still addresses its presence at the grassroots level.
At the junior tennis tournament circuit, for instance, Richard is often quick to jab back at white parents, who often dismiss both Venus and Serena during their matches.
Indeed, King Richard shows how determined he is, to push back against the predominantly white industry and shake up the sport’s status quo.
In one scene, he says to Venus that she would be representing every young black American girl on a global stage. It underlines his self-awareness of how momentous their future success would be.
The issue of racism is central to the Williams sisters’ origin story and the film does a great job to address it throughout its running time.
Venus, Serena and His Second Wife Oracene
King Richard takes place during the Williams sisters’ childhood, with Saniyya Sidney playing Venus and Demi Singleton portraying Serena. Both give great performances portraying the tennis prodigies’ charismatic personalities.
Their intensive tennis training to prepare for their roles pays off too, and Sidney particularly does a fantastic job, considering she is a left-handed actress playing a right-handed tennis junior star.
The tennis itself is superbly captured on camera, with the players’ athleticism and skills perfectly replicated from real life.
Richard’s second wife and their mother, Price, is depicted by Aunjanue Ellis. She takes a less hands-on role in training her daughters but is equally pivotal in keeping her family together.
The Next Great Hollywood Sporting Biopic?
It has already gathered early awards buzz, with Smith’s performance being hailed as one of his best. It also looks likely to snag a nomination for Best Picture at the 2022 Academy Awards.
Rothenberg believes that it will go down well with tennis diehards and casual fans of the sport.
He says: “I really enjoyed it. It’s a satisfying story, even if it clearly makes certain choices on what to focus on.
“It will be a crowd-pleaser. I can see it being popular with both tennis fans and people who just love the Williams sisters.”
It’s hard to disagree. The film captures the on-court tennis action superbly, while also providing an engrossing drama story that is both inspirational and uplifting.
King Richard is released on 19 November in cinemas across the UK.