A different kind of kingdom
Will Smith takes King Richard deeper than the tennis rankings of prodigies Venus and Serena Williams
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King Richard, in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, isn’t just another sports biopic. It’s an inspiring movie about what it takes to become exceptional—or rather who it takes.
Will Smith gives a brilliant performance as Richard Williams, father and coach of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams, and the film shows audiences the lengths to which Richard went to ensure that Venus and Serena became superstars. There’s no mystery about the story’s ending. Even people who don’t follow sports know Venus and Serena will dominate the tennis world. But this movie is about the journey, and it reminds us of the importance of both determination and familial love.
Richard had a plan for his daughters’ tennis careers before they were born. He wrote it all down in a 78-page document he shared with anyone who’d listen. His dedication to the dream of raising two tennis players impresses as much as Serena’s skill with a racket. But before he could teach his daughters to play, he had to teach himself tennis: He only became interested in the sport after seeing a pro on TV earn more at single tournament than he did in a year.
Richard and his wife Brandi (a strong Aunjanue Ellis) raise five daughters in a small house in Compton—all five children squeezed into one tiny bedroom. Richard and Brandi both work hard at their jobs, but they don’t have money for expensive lessons or court fees. The parents train the girls themselves—early in the morning and late at night, rain or shine—on a rundown public tennis court with substandard rackets and used balls.
Being poor isn’t the family’s only struggle. Local gang members harass Richard and his girls during practices—the film is rated PG-13 for racial slurs—and neighbors call the authorities because they think the Williamses demand too much of their children. Richard and his family experience condemnation from their own community because they see Richard’s desire to create a better life as an indictment on them.
But Richard doesn’t merely want to escape Compton. He wants to help the black community, and he believes he can best help through raising daughters who will be examples to other black girls. The film asks its viewers to dream big and work hard, but it also carries a message about how marginalized people desire to be seen and heard.
The family leaves the confines of Compton when Richard convinces real coaches to take a chance on his girls, but he continues to struggle with belonging. The further he gets into the predominantly white world of tennis, the more concerned he becomes. The Williamses experience some racism as they start to play in junior tournaments, and Richard is appalled by the attitudes and expectations he sees from other parents. Despite the hard work, Venus and Serena radiate joy, and Richard wants to ensure his girls embrace childhood while they navigate the pressures that come with being tennis prodigies.
When the girls become proud of their skills, Richard admonishes them to keep their hearts clean. When other coaches pressure the girls to follow a path that might lead to burnout, Richard pulls them out of tournaments. Richard takes the family down a different path, partly motivated by his maverick tendencies but also partly motivated by sincere religious conviction. The Williamses are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and while the film doesn’t dwell on religion, it portrays their faith with sensitivity.
Fundamentally, King Richard isn’t about tennis or the pursuit of excellence. It’s a moving film about the importance of fathers. Richard’s own father abandoned him, so he wants to be a father who stands between his kids and the world. Richard has his faults, but the film shows love is more powerful than failings. And the sacrificial love of a father can change the trajectory of his children’s lives. Becoming a champion isn’t merely about hard work. Sometimes it’s about the family who loves you.
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