In a performance likely to win him a Best Actor Oscar, Will Smith plays Richard Williams, father of tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams.
By night, Richard works as a security guard. By day, he pours everything into executing a plan he mapped out for his daughters even before they were born: Venus and Serena, two little girls from Compton, will be the Michael Jordans of women’s tennis.
It’s a ludicrous plan, preposterous, and as he works the country clubs of Southern California with a homemade “brochure” seeking sponsors and coaches, he’s greeted by “polite society” as a charming eccentric. The truth, though, is that he’s anything but.
King Richard Williams is the brilliant, driven, and loving protector of his daughters’ futures and innocence. He is also hard-headed, single-minded, obsessive, and even a little underhanded at times. But what he proves to be above all else is the only thing that matters: he’s right. Those girls are everything he said, and then some.
Even though we know the outcome, the pleasures here, and this movie is pure pleasure, come from watching how we arrive at that outcome. The decision to tell this story from Richard’s point of view is the right one, and not just because that point of view is carried by Smith, one of our last true movie stars. You see, the best biopics leave you with the sense that you’ve learned something about what made this person who she is, and there’s no question it was Richard who made Venus and Serena what they are.
Thankfully, the story isn’t so focused on Richard that we don’t get a sense of the girls themselves, what they wanted, and their competitive spirit, which literally shines in their eyes. In another stand-out performance, Aunjanue Ellis plays Brandy, the girls’ mother, and her imprint also mattered, mostly in how she could course-correct her husband.
There are many themes at work here, but the most important one, the one most needed in today’s society, is how we are taught again through Richard and Brandy’s example to be Americans.
“You don’t need to be worried about what other people are doing,” Richard tells the girls. “You need to be worried about what you’re doing.”
“Don’t worry about them,” Brandy tells her daughters. “Let them worry about you.”
And there it is….
Even if you’re a poor girl from Compton entering a mostly white and wealthy country club world, don’t pay them any mind. Focus on your goals. Focus on what you want. Work for it, train for it, strive for it. What other people say or do or think doesn’t matter unless you allow it to matter, and if you do, that only holds you back.
In a country now poisoned by cynical hucksters eager to destroy black children with the demonic lie that they cannot succeed in a “racist” country, what a breath of fresh air King Richard is. Stop worrying about the past, the movie shouts; it doesn’t matter. Keep your eye on the future. Stop worrying about what other people may or may not think about you. Worry about you, and then go for it.
King Richard is also a movie about the importance of the nuclear family, about the importance of fathers and religious faith and values.
When a busybody neighbor calls the busybody child services office on Richard, he lays it all out right there (paraphrasing): You damn right we’re hard on these girls. That’s our job. They got straight As in school, and they’re not going to die on these streets.
When Richard could’ve cashed in right away, when his dream is dropped into his lap, he refuses. He’s seen how tennis prodigies become stars and then burn out in a fire of personal demons after being pushed too hard too soon. So his girls will wait. School, childhood, church, and normalcy come first.
King Richard tells us that what made Serena and Venus was something more than hard work. It was good old-fashioned values that created those immortals. It was traditional values, and American values emblazoned upon them by a complicated and imperfect man who’d suffered the worst kind of racism at the hands of Democrats in the segregated south. But rather than wallow in the injustice of it all, he looked ahead, always ahead.
That’s what Americans do.
On the other hand, crybabies do crybaby things, like call child services on the family that’s about to prove your crybaby excuses are all bullshit.