“King Richard” has Will Smith tackle the complicated father of the Williams sisters


Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In this movie, tough fatherly love prevails through hardships.

Shreyas Banerjee, Life Editor

Everyone knows Venus and Serena Williams. The sisters have been tennis superstars since before most of us college students were born, with both winning several Grand Slam titles individually and quite a number together in doubles tournaments. Since their introduction to the sport in the 1990s, women’s tennis has never been the same. Even today, Serena still plays tournaments and remains one of the highest ranked players in the sport. Now a new biopic seeks to shine a spotlight on the sisters’ beginnings and how their success came about. That being said, the movie isn’t about Venus and Serena. Not really. Instead, this film is a portrait of the titular “King Richard,” or Richard Williams, the father of the duo. Played by Will Smith, Richard is controlling, egotistical, stubborn and self-aggrandizing, but we can’t help rooting for him anyways.

Venus and Serena are present throughout the entire film but they aren’t really developed as characters—we know who they become and, as such, their rise to greatness is an inevitable current that the entire film is carried on. This film is something akin to a superhero origin story in a way, showing the conditions that led to their eventual standing. One condition in particular is focused on as the film shows their father’s role in the entire narrative.

Starting from the suburbs of Compton, the film portrays how the Williams sisters go from living modest lives, to their training, to their success in junior tournaments to their eventual entry into the professional circuits, all with Richard Williams behind them. With this framework, we see different sides of Richard as he manages their training and plans out their future. While Will Smith isn’t most well-known for his dramatic roles, he fully becomes enveloped into the role, using his innate charm to bring a likability and charisma to the character, while also showing his more frustrating sides. Richard is a charmer with a plan to lift himself and his family out of poverty, as he hopes to foster greatness in his children so they can one day achieve fame and fortune. 

Obsessed with the notion of keeping his daughters off “these streets,” Richard emphasizes the need to have a long-term goal to constantly work towards. It is revealed early on that Venus and Serena’s entire life has been laid out in a 78-page plan that was created before they were even born, with Richard strictly enforcing adherence to it while also instilling a drive to become champions within his daughters. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” he constantly repeats as he pushes Venus and Serena forward. Through this plan, he constantly promotes them and himself to various people within the tennis world, all with the hopes of being taken seriously within a sport that is predominantly white. Race certainly plays a part in the Williams’ struggles to be accepted early on, but viewers at first may find themselves agreeing with those who doubt Venus and Serena, as well as Richard’s bold claims. But his perseverance and their skill eventually break through at several points in the story to lift them one rung higher on the ladder to greatness.

At the same time we see the more lacking aspects of Richard’s single-minded focus. Oftentimes it does seem like he is doing this more for himself and his own fame as he rides the coattails of his daughters’ successes. All the while his stubbornness flouts the common wisdom on how star athletes are made, with Richard pulling Venus and Serena out of junior tournaments and stopping them from going pro seemingly to solely build notoriety in the media. Yet he is proven right over and over again as the sisters’ inevitable success pulls through. Less forgivable is Richard’s abandonment of his previous children—a fact briefly brought up in one scene and then never mentioned again. All this serves to create a portrait of a complicated man, one who is simultaneously doing what is best for his daughters while also acting in a self-serving manner. Smith’s nuanced performance allows all these aspects to come through and is buoyed by his interactions with Aunjanue Ellis, who portrays his wife Brandy as a needed reality check for Richard, making him come down to earth.

All this combines to create a surprisingly effective biopic, which also acts as a fun sports drama along the way as viewers witness thrilling tennis match after tennis match. The film acts as a tribute to the work and sacrifices made by parents for their children, yet also questions the motives of some who wish to live vicariously through them.

“King Richard” is playing in theaters and is available on HBO Max.