You could be forgiven for being cynical about King Richard. The extraordinary Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest players in women’s tennis history, here become supporting characters in a drama about their dad, Richard. Oh look, Hollywood has found a man’s story to tell. It’s to the credit of director Reinaldo Marcus Green and star Will Smith that this film makes the case for its counter-intuitive focal point.
Smith’s Richard Williams is a husband, security guard and father to five over-achieving daughters with his second wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis). Their youngest two, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), have been groomed for tennis greatness according to a plan Williams drew up before they were born. His hopes seems grandiose at best, deluded at worst, as he tours tennis clubs in search of coaches, sponsors or just discarded tennis balls. But Williams keeps on, pushing his children in a way that might be hard to forgive if he didn’t push himself harder.
Smith reins in his usual breezy confidence in favour of something more effortful, but keeps a twinkle in Williams’s eye as he begs favours, bluffs his way into country clubs and browbeats star coaches into watching his daughters play. Those coaches are by turns fascinated and exasperated, with Jon Bernthal’s Rick Macci visibly unmoored after Williams’ charm offensives.
Director Green, whose last film, Monsters and Men, dealt explicitly with racist policing, here makes race a steady background beat. He never loses sight of the fact that many of the Williams sisters’ challenges stemmed from a background far more disadvantaged than that of their hothoused tennis peers, or the fact that at least some scepticism to Williams’s quixotic quest is rooted in racism. Green emphatically shows that the family’s grace in the face of prejudice is hard-won, the result of preternatural self-control and long, horrible practice.
The film plays down some of the rougher edges of Williams’s life, largely omitting discussion of his children from earlier relationships and showing little pushback from his daughters to his controlling ways. Both Venus and Serena Williams are listed as producers, and perhaps wanted to omit any family friction – or perhaps the inspiringly tight-knit and hard-working family depicted here is exactly how it was.
This may not quite be the biopic of two women whose achievements decidedly merit one, but it’s an extraordinary story about a man who endured danger, ridicule and desperation to create the circumstances for them to thrive.
In US and UK cinemas Nov 19.