Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Pride of King Richard the Lion-Hearted

L.A. Times film critic Justin Chang recently wrote that King Richard, the biographical film detailing how a Compton security guard named Richard Williams jumpstarted the tennis careers of daughters Venus and Serena, was a “shrewd, slick and enormously satisfying drama.”  I generally agree with Chang, but not this time. Shrewd and slick the film certainly is. But for me it was hardly entirely satisfying. At its center is an outsized portrait of Richard, who (to quote Chang again) is “played by an outstanding, wholly committed, sometimes fearlessly insufferable Will Smith,” It’s the contradictions of Richard’s behavior—his obvious adoration of his daughters, coupled with a hard-headed determination to control them and everyone else around him—that makes things interesting. But in tracing the rise of the two Williams sisters on the tennis courts of the world, King Richard raises several questions it never begins to answer.

 As soon as King Richard ended in young Venus’s tennis triumph, I turned to the Internet to learn more about Richard Williams, trying to understand the family dynamics. The film makes much of the fact that there are FIVE daughters in the household, not just two. They are all lively and playful young women, deeply connected to one another, which made me wonder why it is only Venus and Serena who are being drilled day and night in tennis fundamentals. One of the sisters, Yetunde, is clearly the eldest of the group, involved with academics and on the brink of her own independent life. (She was tragically murdered in 2003, in a case that made national headlines, though this in no way features into the story being told on-screen.) But the two other sisters are apparently young kids, with the two future tennis stars in the middle of the pack. Why would Richard ignore the youngsters when it comes to his plans for success? Wouldn’t these younger girls feel left out?

 On the ‘net I discovered that the screen story departs from truth in some key ways. Richard Williams married wife Oracene (effectively played on screen by Aunjanue Ellis) in 1980, when she was a widow with three daughters. Their offspring Venus and Serena were born in 1980 and 1981. Which means they were the youngest children in the household, and the only two related to Richard by blood. How did his obsessive attention to them and their future success affect the other girls at home? Weren’t there any hard feelings? This is one of many matters which the film chooses not to explore.

 I realize, of course, that a film is not the same thing as a scholarly biography. Movies need to appeal to a general public, and they need to be short enough to be absorbed at one sitting. But this one left me with so many questions that I couldn’t shake off. Was Richard Williams still alive? If so, what did he think of his big-screen portrayal? And how did his daughters and step-daughters truly feel about him? The fact that Venus and Serena, along with one of their surviving sisters, are listed as executive producers here (and have clearly approved the intimate Williams family photos shown at the end) hints that they’re happy with this largely upbeat look at their complicated dad. In one respect, though, we do see on-screen hints of trouble yet to come. Oracene Williams, though largely supportive of her husband’s goals, is climactically shown standing up to his autocratic ways. The couple divorced in 2002, a fact that is not revealed in the film’s ending crawl but is—to the sensitive viewer—not a total surprise.




  1. Good write-up/review/detective work (Sgt Friday would be quite impressed). TRUTH is ALWAYS more complicated than what you’re allowed to see. Bob.