“Keep your stance open.” These words, or some variation on them, form a steady refrain in “King Richard,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s shrewd, slick and enormously satisfying drama about the forging of a pair of tennis superstars. To anyone who will listen (and some who won’t), Richard Williams demands that his young daughters Venus and Serena use an open-stance technique, not the closed stance favored by most others.
It’s a nifty running gag, rooted in the truth: Richard and his then-wife, Oracene, really did teach their daughters this method, which would become more widely adopted in the wake of their fame and influence. And because sports dramas and biopics are all about tidy metaphors, it’s also a lesson: Stay loose. Stay flexible. Keep an open mind.
This is admittedly rich advice coming from Richard, who is easily the most stubborn, closed-minded person in the movie and possibly the greater Los Angeles area. As played by an outstanding, wholly committed, sometimes fearlessly insufferable Will Smith, Richard is a combination of helicopter parent, personal publicist, battle strategist and drill sergeant, with a disarmingly friendly, quippy manner that doubles as an instrument of persuasion. Running around town in his tennis-coach regalia of short shorts and knee-high socks, Richard cajoles, insists, argues and refuses to take no for an answer. But for all his initially boundless energy, he sometimes betrays a haggard, heavy-eyed exhaustion, as if even he were getting a little tired of his company.
The details of the outsize role that Richard Williams played in Venus and Serena’s success are by now well known: the exhaustive 70-plus-page plan he wrote for them; the rain-or-shine practices he led on Compton’s cracked-concrete tennis courts; his headline-generating decision to keep his daughters from playing in junior tournaments; his unapologetically self-promotional media interviews; his my-way-or-the-highway attitude in every situation. His plan worked, the closing titles reassure us, which doesn’t entirely neutralize the exasperation of his company. And the paternalistic perspective of “King Richard” — which, like its title, both critiques and lionizes its subject — might provoke a similar irritation. Don’t Venus and Serena Williams deserve biopics of their own? Why does a movie about two game-changing athletes focus on their dad?
To tackle the first question: Sure, if deserve is the word. With few exceptions, the celebrity biopic has long been the clunky white elephant of Hollywood moviemaking, a vehicle for reductive insights, canned uplift, middling impersonations and unexamined idol worship. The best ones tend to come at their real-life subjects from a more oblique angle, putting what this movie’s milieu compels me to call an interesting spin on the material. And even when it falls back on familiar beats or airbrushes away unflattering details (it’s worth noting that Venus, Serena and their sister Isha Price are among the executive producers), 'King Richard,' assuredly directed by Green from a thoughtful, angular script by Zach Baylin, is never uninteresting.
The reason for this is, in some ways, an answer to the second question: No halfway honest movie could focus on the teenage Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) without also focusing on Richard. For better or worse, he was always there. So, for that matter, were their mother, Oracene (a superb Aunjanue Ellis), and their half sisters Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea Price (played, respectively, by Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson and Layla Crawford), with whom they formed an inseparably tight unit. The movie’s signature image is of Richard driving a rickety Volkswagen bus around Los Angeles with all five girls crammed into the back, an image of family solidarity as touching as it is gently amusing.
But their journey is anything but smooth, their path anything but certain, despite Richard’s protests to the contrary. Veering from Compton to West Palm Beach, Fla., to Oakland, “King Richard” lovingly re-creates the look, feel and competitive ambience of the mid-’90s tennis world. Green shoots the tennis matches with crisp, invigorating panache (and with energizing contributions from cinematographer Robert Elswit, editor Pamela Martin and composer Kris Bowers). Names like Jennifer Capriati, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras float through the ether, and some of them pop up in spot-on cameos.
Unable to afford a coach who could push his daughters to that next level, Richard shops around for someone who will be sufficiently impressed to do it for free. And the sisters are beyond impressive. Venus, the older of the two by a year, gets most of the attention early on, and the winning Sidney plays her with a quiet, unassuming confidence that doesn’t preclude a teenager’s natural anxiety and excitement. Before long, she’s being coached by the famous likes of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), both of whom Richard infuriates early and often with his father-knows-best attitude. You can’t help but feel for both coaches, especially Rick, whom Bernthal makes so lovable in his help-me-help-you frustration.
But you also can’t help but see Richard’s perspective and appreciate the larger points he’s making. He knows that the paths to the American Dream are fewer, and the stakes of every decision higher, for two Black girls competing in a predominantly rich, white country-club sport. (He also knows that therein lies both an obstacle and an opportunity.) And his rejection of the coaches’ one-size-fits-all advice — he insists that his daughters’ education, not their tennis, comes first — is born of a protective instinct that few of his fellow tennis parents have had to shoulder.
In ways that echo his excellent, underseen debut feature, “Monsters and Men,” Green subtly tracks the social and psychological ripple effects of crime in a vulnerable community. In Smith’s jaded gaze and wary posture you see years of exposure to casual violence, from the attacks by racist white men he endured as a kid to the gang harassment that disrupts Venus and Serena’s Compton practices. (The fatal 2003 shooting of Yetunde Price isn’t foreshadowed during the movie or mentioned at the end, but there’s something about the loving attention the camera gives her, and her parents’ beaming pride at her academic stardom, that feels like a tribute to her memory.)
And so, like a good tennis player himself, Richard keeps everyone off-balance, the audience included. Nearly every step forward, every milestone, occasions a sudden reversal of strategy that he claims was part of his plan all along. Competitive as hell, he nonetheless urges his daughters toward unwavering humility, even in private, which is a challenge once they start winning left and right. He’s tough on his kids, but he knows toughness isn’t the same as meanness; their parent-child interactions are a model of functionality and understanding, in contrast to the rage verging on abuse we see other tennis parents meting out to their kids.
Which is not to say that the family is always in one accord. Venus and Serena don’t often say much, at least not with words — their fierce athleticism on the court communicates plenty — but Serena’s second-run treatment is duly acknowledged, as is their one-of-a-kind mix of sisterly camaraderie and future Grand Slam competitiveness. And Richard’s most formidable opponent, not surprisingly, is Oracene, played by Ellis with a down-to-earth emotional forthrightness that keeps you on her side from start to finish. She pushes back against Richard’s arrogance and his more extreme proclamations, asserting her own strong, steady hand in her daughters’ upbringing, including the honing of their tennis skills. And Ellis herself comes powerfully close to transcending the parameters of the supportive wife role she’s been given, a cliché that the movie rejuvenates without entirely sidestepping.
Oracene’s most forceful monologue makes a few glancing, perfunctory references to Richard’s past infidelities and other children, foreshadowing their divorce and briefly suggesting the more emotionally honest and complicated portrait of marital discord that 'King Richard' might have been. Still, what we see on-screen is both rewardingly jagged and uncommonly thoughtful, an engrossing family drama that doubles as a sharp rethink of how a family operates within the overlapping, often overbearing spheres of race, class, sports, and celebrity. It climaxes, as it must, with a hell of a match, but the movie’s most furious volleys are rhetorical, psychological, and, finally, emotional. Venus and Serena Williams’ story is as spoiler-proof as they come, which doesn’t mean it won’t break you open.