Review: King Richard (2021)

King Richard (2021)

Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green | 145 minutes | drama | Actors: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross

Even if you’ve never seen a tennis match, you know them: the American sisters Venus and Serena Williams. In the late 1990s, they caused a landslide in the then very white tennis world. Initially they were a sight: two young black girls from Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles where street gangs rule and with their ‘power tennis’ approached the game differently than usual. With white beads braided in their hair and an entire family in the stands whose father Richard Williams in particular attracted the attention. He was not always charming about his daughters’ opponents, he often accused the public, players and officials of racism and determined the routes his daughters took in their careers. Richard Williams is not what you would call an easy man, but without him Venus and Serena would never have become the champions they are. Although the role that mother Oracene played should not be underestimated. Venus won Wimbledon five times and the US Open twice. Her sister Serena, fifteen months younger, has no fewer than 23 Grand Slam titles to her name and only has to tolerate Margaret Court in the all-time ranking. Together they topped the world rankings for 330 weeks. Although they are both in their forties and choose their tournaments carefully these days, they don’t seem to want to hang up their tennis rackets just yet.

The role played by Richard Williams in the careers of Venus and Serena is central to the biographical film ‘King Richard’ (2021) by director Reinaldo Marcus Green (‘Monsters and Men’, 2018). Richard (Will Smith) is a man with a plan. Literally. In his own words, he wrote an 85-page essay in the late 1970s about how he will train his daughters Venus and Serena to become tennis champions; the girls hadn’t even been born yet, but their life path was already set. Together with his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), invariably called Brandi by Richard, her three daughters from a previous relationship and little Venus and Serena, they find their way in Compton – a city where the youth prefers to play basketball rather than tennis. Richard shows an impressive dedication: during the day he trains his daughters at a shabby job where regular gangs gather to interfere with them and in the evenings and nights he works as a night watchman. Oracene also has two jobs in healthcare. If they want Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to make it as professional tennis players, they must seek help from trainers and sponsors. But Richard has no intention of giving others too much influence. Top coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) see their initial skepticism disappear when they watch the girls in action on the tennis court; clothing sponsors and sports marketers see the dollar signs in their eyes. But Richard is stubborn, headstrong and stiff: only he determines the route his daughters take to the top. But when he refuses to register Venus for her first professional tournament, even though she feels she’s ready, the women in his family revolt.

On paper, it’s curious that the father of sports legends as great as Venus and Serena Williams is more likely to have his own biographical film than herself. But Richard Williams is a remarkable man. He’s not your average tennis dad screaming at the court cheering for his offspring. He lets his daughters train in all kinds of weather and he lets the whole family watch the same movie twice in a row if it turns out that they didn’t get the right message out of it. He’s even able to kick his daughters out of the car if they’re loud. On the other hand, he constantly emphasizes how important it is that they enjoy their sport, that they always remain friendly to others and want the best for his girls, even if it sometimes seems that he acts out of self-interest, for example if he forgets to ask his wife or daughters about what they actually want. But above all, he is an example of intransigence, something he passed on to his daughters. A Williams does not give in until the last point has been played. Even if you are behind a set and two breaks, like a poor black family in a milky white tennis world of the nineties. Will Smith plays the part of Richard Williams with gusto; he earned his third Oscar nomination for it (as an actor) for a reason. In his physique, in his speech, in his mannerisms he cleverly mimics Williams. But he makes the man with his silly antics, who is not always well understood by the tennis public, more human. Incidentally, Sidney, Singleton and especially Ellis are also in excellent shape.

Venus, Serena and their older half-sister Isha Price acted as producers and as an experienced film viewer you know: the chance that the lesser sides of the main character are discussed as extensively as the positive is small. Fortunately, Williams’ stubborn and headstrong behavior is not swept under the rug, and his own interpretation of marital fidelity is also touched upon in passing. Nevertheless, you do have the feeling that the situation is portrayed a little more rosy than it actually was. A small minus in an otherwise excellent film, which despite its conventional approach manages to distinguish itself in atmosphere, decoration and acting. Now the question is: when will Venus and Serena get their own biopic? Because in the end they were the ones who completely changed the tennis world and prepared the way for many other young, colored tennis players who can now try their luck themselves on grass, hard court or clay.

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