The Williams girls, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) grew up in the 80s and 90s, when Compton, California was at its worst, the gangsta rap crucible that produced the likes of Dr. Dre, rap group N.W.A. whose album “Straight Outta Compton” inspired the 2015 movie of the same name about life in “the hood” and on streets controlled by the Bloods and Crips gangs. This was the era when Rodney King was mercilessly beaten by police, secretly recorded, and the catalyst for riots in Los Angeles.
Will Smith is Oscar-worthy for his portrayal of Williams, a self-taught tennis coach who claimed to have written a 78-page life plan for daughters Serena and Venus before they were born. His relentless pursuit of an improbable dream is fully supported by his wife Oracene, played by Aunjanue Ellis. She also taught herself the game, but focused primarily on providing a superlative educational and spiritual environment for her five daughters, three from a previous marriage.
As wife to a man so obsessed as to be nearly deranged or self-sabotaging at times, she is the check valve and mirror in the relationship, refocusing on the needs of the girls, not just the dreams of the man. And while she is an ardent feminist, both parents endure and struggle against the racism, gang violence and judgement of peers, neighbors and a tennis community that is about as pearly white and privileged as any sport ever has been.
The results speak for themselves. Like Rocky, Venus goes the distance, and both girls become the “Michael Jordans” of the game. A fictional script that proposed this plot line would be hard to believe, but we’ve all been along for the ride as witnesses to the ascension of two sports legends, and sisters to boot.
The acting is great, the tennis is exciting even if you’re not a fan, and the rather long film seems much shorter. Messages of privilege and racism are a bit heavy handed at times, but they need to be. Like other period pieces, the look back at a time not that long ago can often be cringe-worthy. To emerge, humble superstars from an environment in which tantrum-throwing infants like McEnroe and Connors dominated the sport, and cheating was “just part of the game,” is a testament to the success of the Willams’ parents tough love.
King Richard (2021) runs 2 hours, 24 minutes and is rated PG-13.