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16 November 2021

King Richard is a feelgood rehearsal of the American dream

Will Smith stars as the father of Serena and Venus Williams in a performance tipped for an Oscar nod.

By David Sexton

The humorist Max Beerbohm created a great series of caricatures called “The Young Self and the Old Self” in which the subjects confront each other at either end of their careers. The Old Self of Arnold Bennett, immensely fat and puffed up, in splendiferous white tie, grasping his lapels and throwing his head back, pronounces complacently: “All gone according to plan, you see.” His Young Self, a skinny little scruff, retorts: “My plan, you know.”

Will Smith was a man with a plan, too. He first made a plan for global supremacy – “Global Willing”, he called it – at 16, after being ditched by a girlfriend. At 21, he told his manager he wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world, and they drew up a plan, after studying the common factors in the top ten highest grossing films of all time. And all went well, particularly after Independence Day (1996), in which he grinned his way through his role as a casually wizard pilot who flies a captured alien fighter into the invader’s mother ship and saves the planet, as well as marrying his stripper girlfriend and being a great dad to her little boy.

David Thomson snarkily remarked in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Will Smith is the first black actor to capitalise on the widespread white realisation you don’t have to act to be in pictures. Far more fundamentally, just be in them and let it show that you are not overly impressed or intimidated.” Smith himself has admitted: “I’ve always considered myself to be just average talent – and what I have is a ridiculous, insane obsessiveness for practice and preparation.”

Yet he’s earned two Oscar nominations, for Michael Mann’s bombastic biopic Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). This improbable hit presented the real-life story of a salesman, who, despite being homeless, and desperately trying to look after his little boy (played by Smith’s son Jaden), has the tenacity to stick to his plan to succeed at a firm of white stockbrokers, making good on all his promises
to his son and ultimately founding his own firm.

Now, here’s King Richard, the real-life story of Richard Williams, who brought up his daughters Serena and Venus to transcend their background in Compton and become the greatest female tennis stars of all time.

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Richard Williams decided his daughters would become tennis stars before they were even born, after seeing Virginia Ruzici win $40,000 in a tournament. He drew up a 78-page life plan for them, rigorously followed in the years ahead. “We just got to stick to the plan”, he keeps saying. And: “There you go!” We follow the girls’ story from their childhood years still in Compton, up to the point where Venus makes her professional debut in 1994, at the age of 14, playing against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. The rest is history, after all.

Williams tirelessly takes them training, ceaselessly urges them on, cheekily wrangles them first one highly reputed professional coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and then an even starrier replacement, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). He controls their careers absolutely, turning down ever higher offers of sponsorship, finally scoring $12m from Reebok. Told “I think you might just have the next Michael Jordan on your hands!” he snaps back, “No, I got two.”

Not a single viewer will approach this film not knowing what stars Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) became. So, with success guaranteed, Will Smith can adopt the handicap principle and play Williams as a tad ridiculous, shaggy-faced and a bit of a shuffler, wearing embarrassingly tight little tennis shorts and high socks off court as well as on and driving a rubbish VW bus, without ever compromising his innate stardom.

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King Richard, written by Zach Baylin, attractively directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), is endorsed by the family – Venus, Serena and another sister, Isha Price, are executive producers – so it is feel-good through and through (all 138 minutes). There are no qualms expressed about King Richard getting rich this way.

Actually, it’s not really a film about tennis at all (scarcely touching on the ways in which the girls revolutionised the women’s game, elevating sheer power) so much as yet another rehearsal of the American dream: the achievement of the apparently impossible by the individual, whatever the adverse circumstances. No wonder Will Smith, 53 now, homed in on this project. All you need is a plan. Or would have needed, for most of us, of course.

King Richard is in cinemas from 19 November

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand