I’m not a sporty person, but I do love a good human interest story, and the thing about sport is it’s full of inspirational, against-the-odds, true human interest stories. And the longer the odds and the further the trajectory from rags to riches, the more inspirational and heartwarming the movie version turns out to be.
The rise of tennis-playing sisters Venus and Serena Williams to sporting superstardom has all the ingredients of such a story, and the movie version is out now under the title King Richard.
The title refers to their father, and it’s right that he should be the central character of the movie as he’s the one who made it all happen. Will Smith plays Richard Williams – an uneducated, hard-working blue-collar black man whose doggedness and drive turned his daughters into tennis superstars who dominated the women’s game for nearly twenty years, from the late 90s till 2017, when Serena Williams last won the Australian Open. Between them the sisters hold 30 Grand Slam titles.
King Richard was made with the permission of Venus and Serena, who are credited as executive producers. In it their father is portrayed as tough but loving, concerned mainly for their welfare and ultimately amenable to letting them make their own decisions despite various instances of pig-headedness where he insists on having his own way against their wishes and the advice of coaches and other experts also keen to see the girls get ahead.
The Tennis Dad is a familiar figure in modern sport. Jennifer Capriati, Jelena Dokic, Andre Agassi, Mary Pierce, Bernard Tomic and Aravan Rezai all had dads who were domineering, bullying and even violent with their offspring, sometimes to the extent of damaging their careers and often ending up with the child breaking off ties.
Richard Williams doesn’t make the top five in the list of obnoxious tennis dads, but some say he coulda been a contender. One critic of King Richard has called it “a transparent attempt at image rehabilitation” which “excuses, if not outright ignores, the questionable tactics [Williams] used to push [his daughters] toward greatness.”
Some of those tactics not included in the film include, according to a 2014 New Yorker profile, banning his daughters from dating, and “to discourage any impulse toward early motherhood, Richard would rip the heads off of any dolls Venus brought home.”
Nevertheless we are left with the endorsement of Venus and Serena Williams themselves and their claim that the movie story is ‘as close to reality as possible’. Richard Williams undoubtedly deserves credit for his determination and courage in overcoming a poverty-stricken childhood in the US south in the 1940s, a time when racially-motivated violence was rife. In his autobiography he recalls a friend being lynched and his hands cut off in a murder never investigated by the police. He himself was subjected to a savage beating by Klan members in front of a crowd of onlookers of whom his own father was one. His father eventually fled the scene in helpless terror, unable to lift a finger to help his son.
This incident is mentioned in the movie, with Richard reporting it as one of the formative experiences of his life.
By the time the movie story opens he is living with his second wife Oracene and five daughters, of whom Venus and Serena are the youngest, in Compton, Los Angeles, a place notorious for crime, gangs and drugs. The older three daughters are Oracene’s from an earlier marriage, although this fact is barely perceptible in King Richard and I had to google to confirm it.
It only matters because it seems that Richard persuaded Oracene to have more children so he could turn them into tennis stars according to an 85-page plan he drew up even before they were born, having been inspired by a TV report on how much money professional tennis players could earn. This does seem rather creepy and weird.
King Richard admits all this but maintains that his main motivation was to get the girls away from the life of poverty, crime and sexual abuse that would have been their lot had they stayed in Compton. Critics have said he downplays his own mercenary motives, that he wanted to turn his daughters into cash cows a la Steffi Graf’s father. The girls have not made similar accusations, and Richard’s case is strengthened by powerful scenes in which he is twice beaten up by local black hoodlums who don’t like his attitude. The girls witness this violence, which is, interestingly, the only violence we see in the movie.
So we can understand the sisters’ continuing support for their father, warts and all. But a more self-serving and perhaps less forgiveable omission from the story is the wife and family of five children he abandoned to marry Oracene.
One of his daughters by that first marriage, Sabrina, says he just walked out the door one day to buy her a bike and never returned. She is harshly critical of the sugar-coated version of Richard presented in this movie.
The credits come with the usual montage of amazing stats and real-life footage intended to assure the audience of its accuracy. We see the real Oracene, mother of Venus and Serena. She’s been presented throughout as a somewhat idealized and saintly figure, but the credits don’t mention that he divorced her in 2002 and went on to marry a woman just a year older than Venus! Another wart that didn’t make it into the movie.
So, does King Richard succeed as an inspirational, heartwarming rags-to-riches biopic? For my taste there are too many high-falutin speeches and too much dreamy violin underpinning emotional scenes, but yeah, it’s a great story.
Fun fact: Oracene is played by an actress called Aunjanue Ellis. I can’t help wondering if HER parents took their lead from the sound of the word ‘ingenue’.