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‘King Richard’ squanders its chance to tell the story of tennis’ ruling family

Will Smith disappoints in the title role of Venus and Serena Williams’ father

King Richard has a Will Smith problem.

The movie, now available on HBO Max and in theaters, is obviously meant to be award catnip for Smith and a cinematic crowning for Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena. And yet Smith’s starring role may be the weakest part of the film.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard focuses on the early years of the tennis careers of Venus and Serena Williams, from their days and nights training on the cracked and leaf-filled surfaces of Compton, California, municipal courts to Venus’ professional debut.

Richard has a plan: He and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) will add two more children to their family, and those children will grow up to be tennis prodigies who shake up the world. Enter Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Sidney and Singleton are a delight on screen — their tennis skills, particularly their ability to match the Williams sisters’ style of play, are impressive. They both bring an easy, uncomplicated innocence to the screen, depicting the girls the Williams sisters have always maintained they are: bouncy, smart and unafraid to challenge their father.

Will Smith’s (left) take as Richard Williams doesn’t quite jibe with reality, but more importantly, with the rest of the film and its bend-over-backward effort to soften Richard.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Which brings us to the matter of Smith. The paint-by-numbers script, penned by Zach Baylin, does not provide Richard Williams with an interior life so much as a sequence of events to which he reacts. Ellis handles this challenge better than her leading man, having built a career on doing more with less (which is part of the reason her performance in episode seven of Lovecraft Country feels so revelatory). This point becomes especially evident in a moment where the film contrasts the training of young Venus and Serena.

Venus’ coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), will only agree to train one girl for free, not both. So Richard and Oracene adapt. Richard accompanies Venus to the country club and records everything she learns with a camcorder. Oracene, in turn, uses those videos to teach Serena, who is devastated that she won’t get the same professional training. Ellis as Oracene explodes with such buoyant warmth and joyous encouragement in these scenes that she makes the case for a film that would delve closely into the making of Queens Oracene and Serena. In just a few frames, she and Singleton provide a world of context for the relentlessness of the younger sister’s style of play, and the chip on her shoulder some think she has carried throughout her career.

King Richard tries so hard to showcase Richard Williams as a nonthreatening, well-meaning person that Smith, in his efforts to capture Williams’ fairly standard Black rural Louisiana accent, often lands somewhere between Bagger Vance-lite and Uncle Ruckus. Baylin’s writing, at points, becomes a cringey albatross, such as the one where Smith as Williams utters, “Dis junior coicuit worse dan de ghetto.”

Smith’s exaggerated affectation colors Richard as a bumpkin given to irrational bouts of anger. It’s a performance that gives little insight into the many contradictions of the often soft-spoken Richard, nor does it bother to reconcile that with his seeming (to the many white tennis folks who he exasperated and who exasperated him) mercurial irascibility.

Richard Williams is not a teddy bear — with good reason — and it’s perfectly OK to acknowledge that. In fact, it is necessary to fully understand what makes the rise and decadeslong dominance of the Williams sisters such a quintessentially American saga. But Smith’s interpretation is instead reminiscent of The Pursuit of Happyness, a similarly simplified tale of idealistic bootstrapping based on a real-life figure. This attempt at a broad, uplifting crowd-pleaser largely elides how Richard’s experience of growing up with the terrorism of witnessing a childhood friend be lynched, along with the violence of poverty (Williams grew up picking cotton) form lifelong scars and shape grooves into the rituals of living life and raising children.

Perhaps the scene where Smith’s struggles to move beyond a surface portrayal become most apparent is the one that re-creates a now-notorious ABC News interview with a 14-year-old Venus, in which Richard cuts in to protect his daughter from interlocutor John McKenzie, who keeps questioning her about her unshakable confidence.

In King Richard, Smith’s take has Williams practically exploding at the interviewer, in ways that don’t quite jibe with reality, but more importantly, with the rest of the film and its bend-over-backward effort to soften Richard.

Saniyya Sidney plays Venus Williams in King Richard.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Colorism plays a role here, too. It often arises when discussing the casting of Black women because lighter skin is so bound up in Western standards of feminine desirability. But it has an effect with men, too. Smith’s lighter skin serves as another way to visually defang Richard, whose darker hue has so often contributed to him being perceived as more disagreeable or demanding than the average white tennis parent, even as his methods provided a template for parents of future stars such as Naomi Osaka. It is understandable to want to course-correct from years of sports media coverage in which Williams has been depicted as a quixotic, anti-white crank, but this attempt at gentle hagiography backfires.

Interestingly, a different Smith biopic — Ali — does a much better job of rounding out a complex sports figure whose outward, puffed-up arrogance and radical self-love often served as a response to and defense mechanism against American racism.
Venus and Serena Williams are executive producers on the film and have appeared with Smith to promote it. But like so many studio biopics, family buy-in does not necessarily translate to lasting, probing, meaningful art. There are many chapters of the Williams saga, and King Richard is only one. May future iterations possess the elegance, bravery, fierceness and clarity that the Williams sisters have so long brought to the tennis court.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.