If telling the story of two of the most talented, successful athletes to ever exist by focusing on their dad seems like an odd way to go about celebrating female talent, well, it is and it isn’t. Will Smith’s Oscar-baiting turn as Richard Williams, the laser-focused father of tennis champs Venus and Serena, is no doubt great – at turns wryly comic, piercingly dramatic and never once seen in anything more than some extremely short sports shorts – but the suggestion that he might just be the most important member of this family is a bit of a reach. Yet with both Serena and Venus acting as exec producers, this authorised biopic obviously tells the story the Williams family want to, about how Richard’s hard-line plan for the sisters, coaching and unconventional approach to going pro made these two sisters the biggest sports stars in the world. “I’m in the champion-raising business,” boasts Smith at the start of the film while looking for investment in his girls’ future and dishing out homemade videos and cut-and-paste brochures that sing the praises of Venus and Serena’s undeniable skill.
When it comes to filmmaking, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Top Boy) serves up a heartwarming dose of inspiration, with the young Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Serena) gracefully stepping out of Smith’s shadow in much the same way as their real-life characters did. Smith’s Richard is a dedicated dad, fighting for the respect of his family in an America which didn’t afford him the same grace when growing up in the Deep South of the 1940s and ’50s. The scourge of racism runs throughout, from Smith’s Richard jokingly thanking two cigar-smoking sports investors for removing their KKK hoods before meeting him, to the all-too prescient backdrop of the beating of Rodney King by LA police, which the Williams family watch on TV, commenting that “at least they got it on film this time.”
Despite the lack of jeopardy – surely everyone who watches this film knows that these girls will become global megastars – following their rise is still a thrill, as Sidney and Singleton veer from wide-eyed enthusiasm to steely determination, showing these talented kids teetering on the precipice of leading a sport that was, until the mid-1990s, dominated only by the people who could afford to play it. Every time they beat yet another prissy and ponytailed princess in a swanky Beverly Hills tennis club, it’s a delight, with some of the film’s funniest moments coming from grumpy dads of the kids they beat storming off the courts. The scene in which Sidney’s Venus manages to turn around a game going badly is a majestic piece of stagecraft from an actor so young (she was 13 when the film was shot), as is her work in the film’s nail-biting finale, in which Venus plays the world’s top seed, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in what was her professional debut, aged just 14. King Richard for sure, but let’s remember who the real royalty is: Queens Venus and Serena.
- Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
- Starring: Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton
- Release date: November 19