This inspiring drama is about how Richard Williams (Will Smith) planned and co-coached, with his then wife Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis), their talented daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to become top champions of women’s tennis.
Tennis, a sport with no previous black women champions except for Althea Gibson (1927-2003), begins in the late 1980s when Venus is about nine years-old and Serena is seven. The setting is Compton, CA, and Richard is training and coaching two of his five young daughters to play tennis on old tennis courts in the small city’s rough neighborhoods. He works at night as a security guard and young toughs beat up Richard for no reason, causing his daughters and wife to worry. A neighbor disapproves of Richard’s work ethic – the girls deliver phone books to make money – and his training methods like when he makes the girls practice in the rain. She calls Child Protective Services on the family. Richard handles the authorities and Oracene the neighbor.
Richard began to plan for his daughter’s careers before they are born. When he learned of how tennis could provide a good life for them and the family, he writes a 78-page plan, and he follows it. His mantra to the girls is: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
Richard is bold, fearless, and relentless in his pursuit of professional training for Venus and Serena. He tries to convince Pete Sampra’s coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to coach the girls for free but Cohen will only take on Venus. This is when Oracene takes over as Serena’s coach. Shortly after, sports agents start to show interest in the girls, but Richard is playing the long game.
He is always making videos of his daughters playing tennis. One day he tapes them on the court and sends it to Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) who runs an international tennis academy in Florida. Macci visits Compton and offers a sweet deal to Venus and Serena: coaching, school, room, board, etc. But Richard talks his way into housing for the entire family – and a job for him. What he doesn’t tell Macci is that he does not want his daughters playing in junior tournaments – he wants them to be kids and pursue their education. Richard’s persistence gets on Macci’s nerves who sees his investment lessening since playing in the juniors is how players are noticed and signed.
After three years, Venus wants to turn professional, and she signs an incredible promotion deal with Reebok. The rest in history.
“King Richard” is an inspiring film about a man on a mission. Will Smith plays the driven Richard Williams in ways that elicit sympathy (difficult growing up years without a father to guide him and how he is beaten and abused as an adult by young men who seem to be gang members) but it also lets us know that he was an annoying sports dad and a non-communicative spouse. Remember, this movie is called “king” Richard, not “saint” Richard.
The film runs long at about 130 minutes, but I enjoyed it very much. Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena are amazing tennis players. Their performances off the court, as well as that of Aunjanue Ellis as the hard-working and wise Oracene (who supported the family during those beginning years in tennis), balance out the dominating presence of Richard.
Will Smith is exceptional as he always is.
“King Richard” is a memorable story based on real people and real events. Racism in the sport of tennis is one of the themes of the film that Will Smith’s Richard addresses in key encounters at tennis clubs. Other themes are family, work, the value of education, forbearance, perseverance, and faith.
Richard the dad set Venus and Serena on a path that continues to inspire girls everywhere to become the best they can be. I liked the planning theme that framed the film, the idea of having goals and imagining how to achieve them and being brave enough to commit one’s determination and discipline to stick to the plan.
There’s much we can all learn from “King Richard.” But I will say this – it’s a good thing Venus and Serena were down with the plan, too, or we might be watching a different story today. Richard tells the girls at one point what his mother once told him: “The most powerful, strong and dangerous woman on this earth is a woman who can think.” This is perhaps the greatest lesson Richard and Oracene taught their daughters.
Venus and Serena are both executive producers on the film that was written by Zach Baylin and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. In theaters November 19.