Nature or nurture? The question which has bedeviled sociologists for years is at the heart of the new film “King Richard” about the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.
Richard Williams determined almost before his daughters were born that they would be professional tennis players, even writing out a multi-page, multi-year plan that began with training when the girls were four years old.
His drive, determination and defiant flaunting of the “rules” of ascension into the world of professional tennis are all filtered through the relentless charm of the movie’s star, Will Smith.
Smith gives one of the greatest performances of his career as Richard as he bargains, cajoles and bullies his way into the high stakes world of youth tennis while never once compromising an inch for what he believes is best for his daughters.
Richard is a complicated and flawed hero, but Smith makes him someone worth rooting for even when he’s not on his best behavior.
Starting out in Compton, California in the late 1980s, Richard begins training Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) with used equipment on public courts where they have to endure occasional harassment from gang members.
With them every step of the way is the girls’ mother Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) who also seems to be the only person on the planet that can call Richard into question.
The barrier for entry into a sport dominated by rich white people is high and Richard knows he can only take the girls so far on his own, so he convinces high-profile coaches like Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) to take on Venus and Serena as pupils.
The girls’ talent is undeniable, but Richard is ever-watchful of a system that sees the girls as little more than dollar signs, but Richard is always one step ahead and uses them before they can use the girls.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green is a relative newcomer, but he does a fine job moving the story along, even if the movie could stand having a good 20 minutes clipped from its runtime.
But at the end of the day, this is Smith’s movie and his performance is about as close to a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination as it gets.
But back to that original question, did Richard make Venus and Serena legendary tennis players out of nothing but grit and determination, or would Venus and Serena have been great even without Richard? “King Richard” tells us that the answer, like most things in life, is somewhere in between and it’s up to you to decide how much credit to give him.
“King Richard” is rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references.