Tennis is a sport which has historically been one of social exclusion. It takes money to become the best; to pay for training, one-on-one coaches, travel to tournaments, rackets, shoes – the list goes on. In addition to financial boundaries, geography is very much a factor which affects access into the upper echelons of the sport – all of which is inextricably linked to race.
King Richard is very much about these obstacles, telling the story of the upbringing of Venus and Serena Williams with a focus on their divisive father Richard Williams’ role in their historic rise to success. Richard, played with a fascinating mix of charisma and obsessiveness by Will Smith, has had a plan from the beginning: he is going to make Venus and Serena tennis stars. However, this is not merely a story of one father’s unbreakable dedication but one of black people having to negotiate both intolerant white spaces and cynical black communities.
The result is an inspiring tale filled with excitingly shot tennis scenes and stellar acting, most notably by Aunjanue Ellis whose performance as Oracene Williams (now Oracene Price) truly understands that although the story of Richard Williams is one of triumph and admirable dedication, it is also one that is obsessively ego driven.
In many ways, the film is a spiritual successor to the basketball movie Coach Carter, which similarly begins within a predominantly black neighbourhood in California and deals with issues of youth violence and gang culture alongside it’s underdog sports story. Both coach Ken Carter and Richard Williams ensure that their athletes maintain good school grades whilst pursuing their goals. However, whilst this mixture provides the opening act of King Richard with a palpable sense of urgency, the fundamental difference between the two films is that Venus and Serena get out, as the whole family packs up to follow a coaching opportunity at a top academy in Florida.
This is the moment where, whilst retaining some of its personality through Richard’s idiosyncrasies, the film certainly begins to look and feel slightly sanitised, transitioning into a more typical sports biopic. However, this is no mistake since the gloss and luxury of their new tennis academy/private country club is only accentuated in comparison to the rain-soaked neighbourhood courts back in California. Moreover, as the film shifts to focus more on Venus who is on the cusp of making it as a pro, the tennis scenes themselves are executed with an almost musical rhythm that makes her journey gripping to watch even if you may already know the outcome.
However, for some the outcome itself may not be as satisfying as it could have been, since it leaves so much more to be told. Yet, for better or for worse, this is not Serena’s story nor is it Venus’ and all one can hope for is that this shows studios that people are interested in seeing these stories told. A film that narrates these success stories but through the perspective of someone whose dramatic influence is less recognised is an interesting way to bring such stories to the fore. It shows that not only do Venus and Serena deserve their own films but the names who have not entered the public consciousness, such as Althea Gibson, who was the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title in 1956 and one of the best of her era, require recognition.
Ultimately, King Richard is both a sports movie, a social commentary and a reminder that more black stories are waiting to be told if executives listen. It may be somewhat flawed in not having fully explored the shortcomings of its main character or perhaps for feeling too much like a typical sports biopic in its latter half, but it is a film that is joyous, inspiring and truly entertaining – a remarkable combination that cannot be undervalued within the world’s current climate.
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