Film: King Richard
Reviewed By: Joe Breslin
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Recommended Age: 13+
“Don’t worry about what other people are thinking,” says Richard Williams to his daughters, future tennis phenoms Venus and Serena. “We are here getting great.” King Richard (2021) looks at the Williams sisters’ early years and makes a powerful argument that fathers shape the world, for good or for evil. While the entire cast turns in capable performances, Will Smith embodies the tenacious fatherhood of its titular character, a man whose passion, planning, and principles, as portrayed in the film, wrestled a dream into waking life.
King Richard portrays Richard Williams as a man haunted by his own upbringing and driven by a combination of brazen vision and sheer tenacity. The father of five daughters, Williams follows his own seventy-eight-page blueprint for tennis excellence, coaching his daughters by day while working overnight as a security guard. Richard and his wife Oracene are portrayed as loving, faith-filled parents who refuse to allow their daughters a mediocre approach to life that would, given their social environment in Compton, California, tend toward poverty and unhappiness. The Williams family is a cheerful island of warmth, faith, and personal excellence against a background of crime, regret, and strewn trash. Richard himself is shown as a flawed man with a fierce heart, a father who treasures and encourages his daughters while pushing them very hard in the pursuit of his own vision for their success. At the center of this success is “The Plan,” Richard’s personal blueprint for tennis excellence, to which he cleaves with a stubbornness that sometimes borders on excess.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” “Don’t nothing come to a sleeper but a dream.” These and a dozen other personal epigrams summarize the flavor of Williams’ approach to life. He insists that his daughters achieve top grades in school and that they write the next day’s plan in their journals before going to sleep. He brings them to the tennis court in the early hours before school, after school, and sometimes even in the rain. He contends with local thugs who roam the streets and with one man from whom Richard must protect his eldest daughter, Tunde. Even the tennis courts are so broken and dirty that Richard must clean them before he can coach the girls. When the plan requires that Venus and Serena come under professional tutelage, Richard pounds the pavement, pursuing and cajoling top tennis coaches until he finds one who will train his daughters for free. When only one daughter is accepted for training, Richard films her practices while his wife, Oracene, repeats the same drills with the other daughter. Again and again, Richard’s stubborn adherence to The Plan allows his family to overcome obstacles that most would consider dead ends, and yet that consistency, admirable as it is, causes a few problems, and allows the film to raise questions about the difference between a principle and an ideal.
Among Richard’s principles is his insistence that his girls be fully developed persons and not be sacrificed to the tennis machine. Even as Richard brokers deals to improve his daughters’ and his family’s future, he also makes demands that push the limits of reasonableness. At a crucial moment, he pulls his daughters from Juniors competition in order to spare them the burnout he’s seen in similar cases, and he makes this decision despite the loud protests of his daughters’ coaches, and, according to the film, the collective professional wisdom of the sport. Certainly, his motives for doing so are admirable, and one can’t but stand in awe of Richard’s brazen insistence on his vision for his daughters’ excellence, even when pursuing it risks biting the hand that feeds him. In trusting his own moral sense and in refusing to allow the machine to dictate the rules of success, King Richard lives up to his nickname. He embodies the just ruler trying to achieve the common good, a well-rounded human flourishing, rather than embodying the mere CEO who maximizes efficiency at the expense of every other good. Yet Richard Williams, however principled, is still only a man, and a rather flawed one, as alluded to in one tense scene. It may be his business to know what is best for his daughters, but he doesn’t always know it. The film navigates this tension, along with the tension of one sister living temporarily in the shadow of another, and does so quite admirably. But it leaves the former unresolved, giving viewers something to ponder.
Judged purely as a film, and setting aside the film’s omissions of some rather unpleasant facts about Richard Williams, King Richard makes for a powerful meditation on family, fatherhood, and the price of greatness. Will Smith makes an excellent lead, while competent performances from the supporting cast—including Jon Bernthal (Rick Macci) and Tony Goldwyn (Paul Cohen)—round out a surprisingly deep sports film. Viewers should be aware that the film has some moderate language, including racial epithets, and a few very restrained allusions to Richard’s past improprieties. In this case, the PG-13 rating is a good estimate for appropriate viewing.