There’s a moment in King Richard that, when examined more closely, reveals what the new sports biopic is really up to. Richard Williams squats between his two pre-teen daughters, Venus and Serena, their tennis rackets in their hands. “Venus Williams,” Richard says, turning to his older daughter, “who is your best friend?” “You, Daddy!” Venus replies, a big smile on her face and a chuckle in her voice. Richard looks to his other side and repeats the question: “Serena Williams, who is your best friend?” “Venus,” Serena says. They all laugh. “And then you, Daddy.”
For the young actresses playing Venus and Serena, this is a charming exchange that establishes their characters: Venus (Saniyya Sidney) is the more obedient, composed older sister, while Serena (Demi Singleton) is the spunky spitfire. It’s a dynamic that fans of two of the greatest athletes of all time are familiar with, exhibited through dozens of Grand Slam wins, several gold medal victories, and countless high-profile interviews over the past three decades. And King Richard is as much a dramatization of how these girls became the women they are today as it is a reminder of why we continue to idolize them.
That is, when Venus and Serena actually get the chance to remind us of this. There’s a reason neither of their names are in the title, even if each is more fit to wear the crown. Instead, King Richard asserts that it’s to Richard Williams, the dad-turned-coach with an uncompromising attitude and a short temper, whom we should bow down for his daughters’ success. It’s Richard who, he says, conceived of a 78-page plan for the girls’ rise to greatness before they were even born. It’s Richard who forced them to practice every day, even in the rain. It’s Richard who snuck his girls onto the courts Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) uses to coach Pete Sampras and John McEnroe and convinced Cohen to train Venus Williams too. It’s Richard who worked his tail off to ensure his family was cared for and his girls became the champions he demanded them to be.
Watching King Richard, you’d almost forget who the actual sports stars are. Even when we see young Venus and Serena conquer athletes twice their age or entertain million-dollar promotional deals, the camera always remains trained on Richard, the Svengali pulling the strings. It’s not quite cute that he expects his daughters to be his best friend—it’s a demand that we love Richard, too, and an assurance to the audience that it’s OK that he works his daughters to the bone. When Richard decides that Venus will no longer play in junior league games, because he doesn’t want her to become a brat like the wealthy white girls she competes against, the movie telegraphs this as a loving move. But look past Daddy’s stern eyes and you won’t see a sense of remorse for breaking his daughter’s heart; you’ll see Richard’s stubborn insistence on his own beliefs over anyone else’s. Father knows best, even if daughter knows a helluva lot too.
That’s not say that the movie is pure hagiography—at least in the sense that it does go so far as to acknowledge the counterarguments that might be made against Richard, even as its very structure and form refute them. “You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever met in my life, and I coached McEnroe,” Cohen tells Richard, while the movie reassures us that Richard’s stubbornness always serves a greater cause. “You need to tell your father to stop working you so hard,” a neighbor tells the future tennis champions, unaware that all of those long hours are just part of Richard’s 78-page plan, and because we already know the ends, we also know they’ll justify the means.
The movie also explicitly acknowledges that maybe, just maybe, Richard didn’t achieve Venus and Serena’s mastery on his own. There’s also the role of Venus and Serena’s mother, Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis). When Cohen agrees to work with Venus for free but not Serena, Richard charges Oracene with supervising Serena’s coaching. Oracene takes Serena to the neighborhood court, reminding her that Mom was one of Serena’s first coaches too. And she and Serena have a blast, as Serena develops confidence on her own without her sister there. Oracene even secretly enters Serena into one of the junior league matches that Venus competes in, to the family’s delighted surprise. Meanwhile, Richard is constantly interrupting Venus’ coaching sessions by taping them and shouting at Venus to “keep your stance open,” despite Cohen’s advice. (More on that in a sec.)
This mom-and-daughter interlude is treated as a wink to Richard’s commitment to making Venus and Serena’s ascension an entire family enterprise. That’s a reductive view, though, and one that is only really scrutinized once later in the film. Once Richard uproots the family to Florida so that Venus and Serena both can train at the academy of another renowned coach, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), Oracene finds herself even more sidelined. Which is why her confrontation of Richard in a heated argument—right after Richard again forbids Venus from playing a professional match, despite the pleas of both Macci and his daughter—is the film at both its most satisfying and its most frustrating. Oracene reminds her husband that she was the one who came up with Richard’s sworn “open stance,” which he credits for his girls’ superior tennis playing skills. She was always there, but, like her daughter Venus, she just wasn’t so loud about it. While we might fairly assume that this tension contributed to the dissolution of their marriage in real life (and in scenes like this, the use of the word king in the title begins to seem less like an honorific and more like a nod to his tyrannical tendencies), Oracene and Richard never again broach the subject of the toxicity underpinning Richard’s behavior.
And of course the movie doesn’t want to portray Richard as toxic, because he’s the good guy. He’s Will Smith! The actor whom audiences have come to see, one who can’t help but constantly try to ingratiate himself with the audience. (After all, it’s not as if it’s impossible to make a sports movie about a star athlete’s hard-driving dad without letting that father off the hook: Look no further than He Got Game, starring a frightening Denzel Washington.) And in making Richard the protagonist in Venus and Serena’s story, it robs the champions of their win, relegating them to supporting characters in their own origin story. Venus and Serena Williams are the names we rightly remember, but King Richard remains fixated on the male bravado that pushed for them to get their names out there in the first place. Though the dismissal of women’s agency in their own achievements is disappointing and ill-considered, perhaps it should not be a surprise from a male screenwriter, and a male director who’s written at length about how meaningful his single father was to him—certainly a moving tale but also one that bears out here to an undeserved level.
But let’s call it what it is: King Richard is a Will Smith vehicle, through and through. When you’ve got the Fresh Prince out here wanting to pay for and promote your movie, you’re not going to make him look like an asshole. He’s going to be the hero of the story, no matter the truth. “She did it,” Macci observes of Venus, toward the end of King Richard. If only the movie agreed with him.