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'King Richard' looks to change the perception of Venus and Serena Williams' father

It’s well known that Venus and Serena Williams have completely changed women’s tennis, both with their style of play and in helping to give a new generation confidence that they can succeed in what has historically been a very white sport. The Williams sisters’ legacy is secure.

Less well known, and so far less secure, is the legacy of their father, Richard Williams. He’s often been assumed to be an over-controlling attention hound who pushed his daughters to success often for his own benefit. King Richard looks to change that perception, possibly by going too far in the other direction, although since Venus and Serena were heavily involved in the making of the film, who am I to say?

Will Smith plays Richard, an exceedingly intelligent man who comes across as rumpled and folksy, partly because of his slightly hunched walk, partly because of his Louisiana accent. And it does take a bit to get used to Smith in the role, mainly because of the way Richard speaks, though while we never forget it’s Will Smith, we do settle in. Richard is a man with a plan, literally, as he’s intentionally brought Venus and Serena into the world for the purpose of turning them into world-changing athletes, and he has rigorously mapped out how the entire process will go, from choosing just the right sport, through their training, and all the way to glory.

Which all sounds insane, and maybe it is, but Richard Williams is also not what we expect to see from the prototypical “sports parent.” Because Richard is also extremely protective of his daughters. As the movie picks up, the girls are around 11 and 10 years old, and Richard’s constant refrain is that despite it all, the kids still have to be kids. Along with his wife Oracene—who gets some cursory credit for her role in all this, although almost certainly not enough—the two insist on the girls doing well in school and having multiple interests outside of tennis. He demands they stay humble and gracious in competition, aggressively not allowing them to brag. In short, he wants them to be good people.

He also constantly tries to relieve the pressure the girls are facing, even while pushing them toward greatness, a curious tension I do wish the movie had explored a little more. Richard seems to be a complex man whose goals don’t always live in harmony with each other, and those contradictions he must have inside him are often only hinted at. That said, it’s refreshing how the movie continually disarmed my cynicism—throughout, I expected to come to a point when Richard pushes the girls too hard, when he becomes oppressive, and it simply doesn’t happen. He wants greatness, but he also really cares. The girls, for their part, genuinely seem to enjoy it all, and there’s no reason to assume this wasn’t their actual experience. There’s no doubt much of Richard’s protectiveness comes from knowing what it’s like to be Black in America, and he’s never shy about pointing out Black stereotypes to the white faces of the tennis world. But, then, challenging assumptions about race in sports was in his plan, too.

So, was it all part of the plan? Maybe. Richard was clearly very intentional about a whole lot of what he did with Venus and Serena, but there’s some reason to believe he was less rigid than it seems. There are times when things don’t exactly go the way he expects, and he nevertheless says that it was “in his plan.” Some of this has to be to save his own ego, but it’s also an acknowledgment of the occasional need to adjust, sometimes to do right by his daughters—there’s a scene where he tells Serena he’s kept her in Venus’ shadow on purpose, because he knew she could handle it, and besides, she will grow up to be the greatest of all time. He turned out to be right, but we already know it was circumstances that kept Serena behind her sister, not necessarily his intentions. What Richard was doing was simply trying to help his daughter feel better.

And frankly, this is all an inspiration to see, a man who helps his children reach greatness by affirming them, not berating them. Is this how it happened? No doubt it’s simplified, but this is a biopic, not a documentary. If there’s a real problem, it’s that the movie’s last 45 minutes cover Venus’ entry into pro tennis as a 14-year-old, and it reaches a level of excitement the rest of the movie can’t match. But, then, that’s even more inspiring, and how can that really be a problem?

King Richard is in theaters and on HBO Max.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.