REVIEW: The big screen needs more Black fathers like Richard Williams and Black people deserve more glossy stories about Black lives.
The Richard Williams we see in King Richard is one of the greatest Black fathers ever seen in Hollywood history.
We live in a country where Black dads spend more time with their children than fathers of any other race, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, they are often stereotyped as deadbeat and often shown onscreen as toxic or abusive or invisible.
Into this world comes a Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, who’s endlessly encouraging his children. He’s loving. He’s dedicated. He’s given his life to his daughters and he instills sky-high confidence in them — not just the tennis players but his future lawyers, too. He will fight any adult he thinks is trying to chip away at their confidence. He will stand up to gangbangers on their behalf and when a major corporation offers Venus a multi-million dollar contract, he lets her decide whether or not to take it.
(Credit: Warner Bros)
No one believes in his daughters more than him. Williams spends most of the film either loving on his daughters or recruiting people to help him achieve his ambitious plan or standing up to anyone who would get in the way. Over and over he rejects powerful White people who tell him things must be done their way. And he’s not stubborn simply because — he’s a product of Black history.
He tells us that he grew up in the South and was brutalized. While he was being abused by Whiteness, he saw his father run away from him as a child. Due to that experience, he vows to never abandon his kids.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Of course, there’s a bit of fairy tale in that — the real Richard was a little harder on the girls than this film allows, but it’s OK to have a Black fairy tale. This one seems to have a mission to reclaim and retell the story around Richard Williams who is, without question, the most successful sporting parent of the modern era. Seemingly from nowhere, he built Serena Williams (Demi Singleton), the best player in the history of her sport, and Venus Williams (Saniyya Sidney), one of the best players in tennis history.
Serena is the Tiger Woods of tennis, but Earl Woods built only one legend. Archie Manning built two Hall of Fame quarterbacks but as great as Peyton and Eli were at football, Serena and Venus are better at tennis. And yet, Richard Williams has largely been seen as a nuisance at best or a sort of villain at worst. He hasn’t truly been welcomed by sports media or the tennis establishment as someone who’s a genius. This is partly because Williams is not warm and fuzzy.
He can be difficult and irascible, like many older Black men who remain traumatized by White folks and are distrustful and disdainful of them. This film succeeds at showing the world his side of the story and showing how his stubbornness was often brilliant. His imperative to “practice, practice, practice” is leavened by his insistence on also making time for his kids to be kids and not rushing them into becoming professional too fast.
His love for them is clear — in so many cases it seems like the parents of prodigies look at their kids as a meal ticket, that’s not Richard Williams. He’s building them up because he knows these strong, self-confident Black girls could conquer the world.
OK, that said, Richard Williams did not create Serena and Venus by himself. For me, one of the big problems of this movie is that the impact of his ex-wife, Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis), is largely erased. People who have been close to the Williams family say Oracene is a critical figure in the rise of Serena and Venus. She was important at building a lot of the self-esteem and the killer instinct that makes them who they are.
Yes, we briefly see Oracene on the court with Serena leading her in a tough practice, but mostly we see Oracene nodding when Richard talks or asking Richard if they are truly partners and being told “yes,” while the real answer is “no.” It looks to me like the character asking to have as much power as the real Oracene did. The film could be more powerful if we saw more of Oracene.
Also, Serena and Venus are important parts of the rise of Serena and Venus but this movie doesn’t dive into their relationship. We see neither their epic closeness nor their moments of frustration with their dad. They seem two-dimensional, most of the time doing what they’re told. Are Venus and Serena different? Do they respond to Dad’s input in varying ways? Do they play tennis differently? From this film we don’t know.
When Venus and Serena were young and still living in Compton they played against each other all the time. Venus, the big sister, was physically stronger than Serena, so it was hard for Serena to keep up so sometimes Serena would cheat — she would call clearly in balls as out. But Venus, the big sister, loved Serena so much, and felt so maternal and protective toward her, that even though she knew she was getting cheated, she said nothing. That sort of beautiful, powerful detail that characterizes the deep relationship that Venus and Serena have ought to be in a film covering their lives.
The film also gives us a fairly stereotypical vision of Compton as a place of gangbangers and drive-by shootings. Surely, that’s part of Compton, but if you lived there you know there’s more to the place —there’s other ghettoes but few that have raised so many extraordinary people. What is it about Compton that has given us Anthony Anderson, Ava DuVernay, Dr. Dre, James Harden, Richard Sherman and so many more? We don’t know.
(L-R) Serena Williams and Venus Williams attend the 2021 AFI Fest Closing Night Premiere of Warner Bros. “King Richard” at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 14, 2021 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
Growing up in Compton is an important part of the Williams story but we don’t know why — the film gives us a shallow look at Compton, just like it goes shallow on Oracene, Serena, and Venus. It only goes deep on one subject, Richard. I would love a portrait of the Williams world that’s a little, um, richer.
If I were part of the production team, I would have urged them to have the story flow farther into the early part of their professional career — let us see them make it to Wimbledon! And I would’ve said let’s flow further back into Richard’s past in Shreveport, Louisiana — let’s see him in the Jim Crow South so we see where and what he’s come from. Young Richard once wore a Klan hood in order to sneak up on some White adult and attack him and escape. Would love to see that moment dramatized.
I’m a lifelong tennis fan and player, who grew up playing junior tournaments, and I’m a huge fan of Serena and Venus so this film is catnip to me, but I wonder if people who live outside the world of tennis will care about the challenges the film chooses to focus on. So much of the narrative hangs on the argument over whether or not the girls will play junior tournaments. And whether or not they will hit their groundstrokes with an open stance.
I understand that these questions are really about agency and whether Richard and Serena and Venus will do things their way or give in to the world, but I know there are more difficult dramatic questions that could have been thrown at these characters.
King Richard gives the epic rise of the Williams sisters a Disneyified gloss, but there’s so much more grit and so many more hurdles in this story that are missing. But, as the film wrapped, I was filled with the same pride I get when I watch kids movies about people overcoming obstacles. I’m glad Richard Williams finally has something that proves to the world that he was an amazing father. The big screen needs more Black fathers like him and Black people deserve more glossy stories about Black lives.
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