Hagiography is a tricky business. You have to be quite sure that your subject deserves the glory they’re getting, and King Richard is on, at the very least, somewhat shaky ground here.
At the very least, it’s a somewhat odd film. Richard Williams is a somewhat odd choice of subject for a biopic; as a tennis coach, Richard would have been at best a footnote in sporting history; his place in the annals of the sport is secured less by his achievements than by his daughters’.
And that, then, is what this film is ultimately about. Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) are depicted as creations of their father, Richard (Will Smith), as much as they are their own people. Smith is, of course, a charming and highly likeable screen presence; it’s hard to take against a Smith character, even as he pushes, prompts, and, let’s be honest, bullies his girls to greatness on the tennis court. It’s clear they like their tennis; it’s implied that he likes their tennis even more.
And so we see Richard fight for his girls to become great. They do, obviously—they remain, undeniably, the greatest tennis players, male or female, in the history of the sport. But King Richard makes it clear that it’s daddy that got them there. There were challenges, obviously—the film reminds us that, as the Williams sisters were making their way up the ranks, tennis was very much a middle-class white sport, and there was no shortage of barriers their father helped them clear—but it is very much Richard’s achievements that are the focus of the film. Richard creates the Williams sisters to his own blueprint, Richard moulds them and shapes them. Yes, they achieve greatness, but that’s not ultimately not what this film is about. It’s about, essentially, how Richard Williams became the father of the greatest tennis players, not the players themselves.
And that’s the problem with what is, otherwise, a perfectly agreeable and pleasant film. We get to see Serena’s talents emerge, and the family shape their lives around her, moving from Compton to Florida so she can attend a tennis academy that her father has selected for her and managed to blag her way into for her. We see Richard go head-to-head with the coaches he’s hand-picked for her—it’s clear that he always knows what’s best for his daughters. And while, yes, he is their father, and he does have their interests at heart, it’s their tennis interests that are his focus—his ambition becomes their ambition.
And so the film keeps its focus squarely on Richard—the sisters are there solely to show what he’s capable of, what he can lead them to. There are other sisters, but they’re ciphers—if you can remember their names, and which one was which, at the end of the film, then I’ll give you the money myself. And it’s a long film for such a narrow focus. And ultimately it is a hagiography—the sisters have executive-producer credits, and you know there’s no way such powerful women would allow their dad to be portrayed in anything else than a favourable light.
So the result is an agreeable, but ultimately forgettable film. We already know much of the story, that Richard raised two daughters as hothouse flowers much as the Soviet Bloc raised gymnasts in the 1970s. We even get hints that the daughters perhaps loved tennis slightly less than their father liked their tennis. But even when Serena faces her Winter Of Discontent in the summer of 1998, we know that greatness in sight for her. Much of the story of King Richard is well enough known, especially to tennis fans, that this is an ultimately disposable film. It’s perfectly enjoyable, but it tries too hard to paint King Richard as the hero of his daughters’ story, and in doing so it diminishes their roles, and that’s its biggest failing.