You can do anything you want.
Oh, you can do almost anything you want, given enough skill and time. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, and if you work really, really, really hard, you can probably do that.
But a professional tennis player? That’s something else.
According to Schmoop.com, about 5 million kids around the world dream of becoming professional tennis players when they’re 7. By the time those kids turn 15, you’re probably looking at 100,000 who still have that dream. By that time, most all of them have plenty of talent. Most work really, really hard.
The number who successfully turn pro? Maybe 10 of those 100,000, according to Schmoop. And of those lucky few—there are fewer than 4,000 tennis pros in the world—only 256 compete in singles matches at Wimbledon every year.
Richard Williams aims to buck those odds.
He has no interest in turning pro himself, of course. He’s too old, his feet hurt too much. But his daughters? He feels like they’ve got a shot. Before they were even born, Richard put together a 78-page plan for their future careers. And now that they’re both drawing breath and swinging rackets, Richard thinks they’re both right on track.
But to be great tennis player, you need more than talent, more than a tireless work ethic. You need money. Money for coaches, for tournaments, for tennis camps, for training. And that’s something Richard just doesn’t have. He trains his girls himself on municiple courts in delapidated parks surrounded by gang members. He shleps them around Compton—a gritty neighborhood in Los Angeles—in a beat-up van.
So Richard pursues his—er, his girls’—dreams with an unorthodox flourish. He sends videos to the best coaches in the country, meeting in person with as many as he can. “We not here to rob you,” he tells one. We here to make you rich!” But they’ll have to coach the girls for free—and that, given the odds, is a bet most would never entertain. Most ignore him or turn him down flat. “Have you thought about basketball?” one asks, with just a shade of racist intent.
No he hasn’t. Of course he hasn’t. Because Venus and Serena Williams are destined for tennis greatness. Even if they, and he, are the only ones who know it.
Richard admits he’s not a perfect father. And in King Richard, he does plenty that might make viewers cringe. But a lot of what drives tennis coaches, parents and even his own kids a little crazy comes from a good place: He wants to raise his children right.
Richard and his wife, Brandy, have five daughters, not just two. They all sleep in the same bedroom and live in a rough neighborhood. Richard’s determined to keep them off those dangerous, corrupting streets. Tennis is just one part of the plan.
The rest? Even though his own education wasn’t the best, Richard demands academic excellence from his daughters (and indeed, most or all of them seem to get straight A’s). Venus and Serena apparently know how to speak four languages before they learn how to drive. For fun, the Williams family holds talent shows, which is practically the equivalent of pulling taffy or singing ’round the ol’ piano. This family practically defines the term “close-knit,” and does it under very trying circumstances.
When he sees how corrosive the competitive junior tennis circuit can be—and how belittling and even nasty other tennis parents can get—Richard makes the unheard-of decision of taking Venus off the circuit (despite the girl having a 63-0 record), telling her coach that the next time she plays, it’ll be as a pro.
He is as protective a dad as a dad can be, even to the point of confronting a handful of gang members when one directs lewd comments at his oldest daughter (Tunde). And when Venus begins to push back at his protectiveness—which, in truth, has turned the corner to being overbearing—he explains why he can be so controlling. Using a family story as illustration, he recounts a time when Richard saw his own father skedaddle when Richard was in trouble. “I never wanted you to look up and see your daddy running away,” he tells her. Good intentions aside, though, Richard can still be exasperating.
In many respects, Brandy is the cement that holds the Williams family together—and filling in the gaps that Richard leaves in his wake. When Richard is concentrating on Venus’s future, Brandy takes Serena to the court and helps fix her serve. When Richard’s determined to teach his kids a lesson in humility—planning to drive off while the kids get ice cream miles away from home—Brandy leavens the lesson with a little common sense (and insists that Richard, y’know, not desert their children). She’s just as loving and just as demanding as Richard is, and she feels bound by her faith to follow her husband’s lead. But she reminds him never assume her silence means she agrees with him—and Brandy helps keep Richard’s sometimes raging ego in check.
The parents’ hard work shows up in their kids. The movie versions of Venus and Serena are unfailingly polite (if unwaveringly confident in their own abilities). They obey their parents and appreciate them both deeply. And when Richard does start letting Venus make some of her own decisions, Venus winds up making some pretty good ones—showing that her upbringing helped her become more than just a good player: She’s a pretty savvy person, too.
Another element that we shouldn’t just let slide by: As Venus and Serena grow into the fledgling tennis stars Richard knew that they could be, everyone’s very aware of the girls’ significance. In this particular arena, filled with country-club families and overwhelmingly white, Venus and Serena stand out—not just because of their game, but because of their color and upbringing. “This next step you ’bout to take, you not going just be representing you,” Richard tells Venus as she considers turning pro. “You’re going be representing every little Black girl on earth.” Venus and Serena are going to be critically important role models, in other words—a role they should, and do, take seriously.
The real Williams sisters were raised to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we hear one clear reference to that strain of faith when Richard mentions a “Kingdom Hall.” Outside that sole mention, you might assume that the Williams family was simply Christian. They pray at the dinner table, and we hear references to having “faith.”
The woman who lives across the street doesn’t approve of how Richard and Brandy Williams are raising their kids (and is pretty appalled that Richard makes Venus and Serena practice in the rain). But Richard knows that the neighbor’s own daughter is working as a prostitute, and he’s determined to keep his girls from falling into that fate.
We hear during an argument that Richard has fathered other children—a reminder that’s painful to Brandy and perhaps a surprise to the kids listening in. We hear the kids joke about “booty.”
While Richard is on the tennis court with Venus and Serena one afternoon, older sister Tunde is at a park table doing homework. Several young men—likely members of a gang—direct a number of suggestive comments and lewd remarks in Tunde’s direction. Richard sees what’s going on and he knows it’s not the first time they’ve harassed Tunde. So …
Richard walks over and tells them to cut it out. They punch Richard in the gut and walk away, as Richard struggles for breath—and as his girls look on. When they get back home, one of the girls shouts to Brandy, “Daddy got beat up again!”
It’s not the last time Richard deals with these bullies. They discover him alone on the tennis court and start peppering him and his family with insults—including some crude suggestions about what one wants to do with the oldest daughter. Richard punches the guy and is, in turn, brutally beaten—trying to ward off the punches and kicks by laying in a fetal position. The leader points a gun at Richard’s head and pulls back the hammer as his pals encourage him to “smoke” the father. He does not, but he does hit Richard in the head with a racket, knocking him out cold.
When he comes to, Richard’s had enough. He goes back out with a gun of his own, planning to kill his assailant. But just as he’s getting out of his car to do the deed, the gang member is gunned down in a drive-by shooting. (We see the car thunder by, hear the shots and see the body fall in the street.)
Richard tells his kids about his rough upbringing. “When I was your age, I had to fight every day,” he said. “I ain’t had no daddy to stand [up for me].” He says that he’d never gotten much respect in the world, but he’s determined to make sure that his daughters are respected.
We hear how Richard can say some pretty provocative things in interviews, including how tennis parents should be killed. Tennis players slam rackets into the net or on the ground. There are references to police brutality, and we see some clips of the Rodney King beating.
The f-word is used once (along with the stand-in “freaking”) and the s-word twice. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “f-g” and “h—,” as well as two misuses of God’s name (once with “d–n”). The n-word is used about five times.
We see a bit of wine and champagne at country clubs, as well as hints of the drug deals that may be happening in the Williams’ Compton neighborhood.
One of Venus and Serena’s coaches points to Jennifer Capriati—a teen tennis prodigy—as an example of what the girls should strive for. Later, news reports blare that Capriati was busted for marijuana possession, and the reports allude to some heroin being present at the scene, too. Those reports—and how Capriati burned out on tennis at a young age—encourage Richard to disregard his daughters’ coaches and steer their development in a different way.
Race and racism form an important undercurrent to this story; and Richard’s interactions with the predominantly white tennis culture shows, at times, how prickly and how difficult-to-navigate such issues can be. Sometimes, Richard smiles in the face of racist slights. Other times, he takes offense when no offense was meant. (When he meets with a couple of sponsor reps at a country club, for instance, he thanks them for making the members take off their hoods—a reference, of course, to the Ku Klux Klan.)
And let’s be honest: Richard can be kind of a jerk, even if his instincts often prove to be right on.
Most of us know just how right Richard Williams was about his daughters’ tennis prospects.
Venus was the first Black woman to be ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association and won seven Grand Slam singles tournaments—including five Wimbledon championships. Serena has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles—the second most of all time—and she’s considered by many to be the greatest tennis player, male or female, in history. Together, the Williams sisters have won 14 doubles Grand Slam championships as well.
The sisters were behind the production of King Richard, too—perhaps looking to add a little movie hardware to their trophy case.
“There are so many ways to tell this story,” Serena told Entertainment Weekly. “But I think telling it through my dad was the best way because he had the idea. He knew how to do it.”
Richard himself wasn’t involved in the production, but the movie feels like a warts-and-all love letter to the way the girls were raised. Richard’s not perfect, but he loves his kids. Richard’s a hard father, but he’s hard because he wants his girls to achieve something special—to aspire to a life beyond the streets of Compton.
I think many a parent who reads these reviews can see something of themselves in Richard—something of their own family in the Williams family. We want what’s best for our kids. We’re aware that the world, and the culture, we’re raising them in doesn’t do us many favors. We’re concerned enough to read reviews just like this one, to see if this movie about a not-so-typical family is right for our families.
King Richard deserves its PG-13 rating based on language alone. Sensuality and violence form small-but-important parts of the movie, too. But rarely, I think, does a film so effectively convey how hard it can be to raise children (tennis stars or not) and the sort of dedication it can take to raise them well. King Richard is an aspirational film—and one that might encourage parents to remember that all of their efforts aren’t wasted.
Our kids may not turn into great tennis players, of course. But with work and determination, and while making a lot of mistakes along the way, we have a chance at raising our kids to be good people.
And that, honestly, is more important than any cup from Wimbledon.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.