There’s a scene early on in “King Richard,” the crowd-pleasing tale of how Richard Williams raised the two greatest players in women’s tennis history, that finds young Venus and Serena doing a photo op with Nancy Reagan. The former first lady is explaining to the crowd the origin of her famous anti-drug slogan, “Just Say No.” It was a controversial campaign then and now because it inherently placed the burden of drug abuse solely on the individual, ignoring the systemic economic and racial issues that produced the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. It’s a key moment because the film basically does the same thing.
“King Richard” is the first mainstream film made about the Williams sisters, trailblazing Black women in a historically-White sport, but it backgrounds the systemic challenges they faced. Instead, it’s pitched as an aspirational fairy tale, celebrating the man who pulled his daughters up by their own bootstraps. The fact that this story is true doesn’t make its framing any more insidious. There were any number of ways it could be told. The filmmakers chose the one that most aligns with Nancy Reagan.
For starters, it’s just odd that Richard Williams is the film’s central figure. Maybe it’s not so odd considering he is played by megastar Will Smith, but it creates a strange imbalance throughout. The tension derives from whether or not he’ll succeed in guiding his daughters to fame and fortune, but in reality they’re the ones who won all those matches and rose to the top of their sport, ignoring racial slurs both coded and explicit from fans and players. This abuse is well-documented, but “King Richard” never gets there. Instead, it ends after Venus’s second professional match (and before Serena even goes pro), which allows the filmmakers to focus not on the girls’ achievements but on Richard’s stubborn insistence on doing things his way at every turn. We see him stand up to disruptive gangs in his Compton neighborhood, beat down doors in search of a professional coach for his daughters, and refuse the overtures of agents and sponsors who he senses don’t have his daughters’ best interests at heart. Everyone tells him he’s crazy, but this is a father who knows best.
As directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”), the racial elements are handled with a delicacy that makes it essentially useless in our era. When dog whistles have been replaced by megaphones, subtly artful portrayals of bigotry just don’t cut it. If you squint at “King Richard,” you can see racial resentment in the juniors’ tournaments, where Venus’s White opponents seem to get a little extra angry at losing to a Black girl. So do their parents, one of whom even encourages her daughter to cheat. You can see it in the patronizing responses Richard gets from the old, White coaches as he makes his rounds at the country clubs, looking for someone to guide his daughters.
These moments are carefully presented so you can choose to see the racism or ignore it altogether. Instead, the economics are emphasized. There are several discussions about the prohibitive costs of training a young player, which by definition excludes most Black athletes. In America, you have to have money to make money. This explains why the filmmakers chose a climax that hinges on whether or not Venus will accept a multi-million dollar sponsorship contract the night before her biggest pro match, or reject it and get a bigger one if she wins. In the end, money means opportunity, and you have to create it for yourself.
The problem is that “King Richard” doesn’t examine this idea. Instead, it wants to make as many people as possible feel good by inspiring us with a tale of how the two most talented Black athletes since Michael Jordan escaped their circumstances. But what about those who lacked their talent or a father as dedicated as Richard? How will they survive and thrive in that same world? “King Richard” has no answer for that one, and worse still, it doesn’t even bother asking the question.
“King Richard” is now in theaters and on HBO Max.