Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green (USA). Year of Release: 2021
Late 1980s, the posh part of Los Angeles. One of those tennis/country clubs which is inhabited almost exclusively by rich, white men. Richard Williams is neither rich nor white but he is haranguing anyone who will listen (and many who won’t), asking them to support the future tennis career of his young daughters. No-one shows the slightest bit of interest.
In part, they’re probably right when they say they hear this sort of stuff from ambitious parents every day. At the same time, you’re very aware that it was not so very long ago when someone with Richard’s skin colour would not have been allowed into one of these clubs. Whatever the reasons, he must take the girls back to practising on poor quality municipal tennis courts in Compton where girls get regularly cat called by the lads who have nowhere else to hang around.
Richard works nights as a night watchman and his wife Oracene does double shifts as a nurse. Both spend most of their remaining time teaching their two prodigal daughters how to improve their tennis. Yes. Both of them. Although Richard is more eager for attention, his wife is just as important in the sisters’ development, especially after Pete Sampras’s coach agrees to train Venus, leaving her sister alone on the municipal courts where her mother helps her with her serve.
The family continues to go everywhere together – Richard, Oracene and their five daughters riding around in his little camper van. When Venus gets offered to train with a top coach in Florida, one of the conditions is that the rest of the family travels with her. The film does mention how Selena is denied the publicity showered on Venus, but the other three girls have largely walk on parts, leaving you to wonder what their lives would be like in the shadow of their talented sisters.
Richard continues to act as a helicopter parent – and indeed as a helicopter husband, making decisions on behalf of his female family members. He does consider their interests, but it would have been polite to consult them, especially when he rejects a lucrative sponsorship deal or withdraws Venus from all competitions, so that she can experience the life of a normal girl (unlike, say, stablemate Jennifer Capriati who suffers a “My Drugs Hell” experience).
Behind all these decisions there is not just over-attentive parenting but an awareness of race and racism in modern US-America. Richard is old enough to remember visits from the KKK in the Southern States. One of his decisions comes immediately after watching the police beating black man Rodney King on prime time television.
There is an intrinsic problem for any biopic of the rich and famous. However humble their origins, whatever blocks are put in their way, we already know how it’s all going to end. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that Venus and Serena Williams became pretty good at tennis, despite the disadvantages of race and class that they had to fate.
To an extent, King Richard sidesteps this problem by focussing not on the sisters but on their driven father. This is an audacious move – the first film about two of the greatest athletes – male or female – in history, puts the women into the background so that it can tell us about dad. Saying that this is for a different film is correct as far as it goes, but it does show how much easier it is to get Hollywood funding for a film about a semi-talented man than about two very talented women.
There is another problem that many biopics suffer, especially if they are about and have been approved by a living person. The temptation to churn out an uncritical hagiography must be immense. It is to King Richard’s great credit that, although it does defend papa Williams against his worse critics – showing the effect of racism, past and present on his desire for his daughters to not go through what he had to – he does not come across as a particularly likeable person.
This is most definitely not a perfect film. There are just so many shots that I can take of long training sessions of one person throwing endless tennis balls across a net to someone who whacks them back. I know that professional athletes only become successful on the back of long, boring routines, but I’ll believe that without you having to show me it in real time.
I was also a little disappointed by the end credits. After several scenes of Richard rejecting large sponsorship deals to keep his daughters level headed, we are breathlessly told that they became so successful that they got an even better paid deal. We then see Venus curtseying in front of the Queen. Oh, and then that both sisters won a few games of tennis. I’m not fully convinced of the priorities here.
But it’s a film well worth seeing. It doesn’t break out of the restrictions of the genre, but it does tell an interesting story well. And unfortunately there’s not enough of that about at the moment.