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King Richard

Released 2021. Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

FANS OF TENNIS SUPERSTARS VENUS WILLIAMS AND SERENA WILLIAMS may have already known this for a long time. But for those like me who had no idea how their journey began, King Richard is quite an interesting account of the origins of the most celebrated sisters in tennis history. And it has a lot to do with their father.

Even before the birth of the girls, Richard Williams has already mapped out a strategy in his 78-page master plan. Oh yeah, the man industriously lays all the details down on how he will raise his daughters to become world tennis champs. He’s done the background research on the sports, the odds, the training, the coaches, the education, the timing. Nothing escapes him. Apparently, someone once asks what if his wife gave birth to boys. “Oh no,” Richard replies. “It’s gonna be girls.” And he's right.

When the girls are little, Richard, who works as a security guard, and wife Brandy, a nurse, train them at public courts. Richard is regimental about the physical skills as well as attitude and character. He makes the girls walk home after a winning match because they wouldn’t stop talking about their victory, which to Richard equates to bragging. He sits the family down to watch Disney’s Cinderella and then quizzes them on the moral of the story. One daughter replies: “Bravery – because you need to be brave to ride in a pumpkin.” Richard doesn’t think it’s funny and proceeds to make the family sit through another viewing until they get what he wants them to learn – which is, according to him, to always be humble.

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is a mantra repeated often. It’s written in big letters on signs the family bring to their tennis sessions, it’s on Post-it notes stuck on the fridge. Call him obsessive, call him persistent, call him mad, Richard is a pro when it comes to planning and execution. He is disciplined, unyielding, a consummate negotiator, agent and manager who muscles a deal with renowned coach Rick Macci to take on Venus and Serena and continues to call the shots.

This dramatisation of how one particular man sets out to bring up two daughters raises some interesting questions. What do you make of his unorthodox parenting method? If sports champions can be created this way, what else could parents mould their kids to be – the next Yo-Yo Ma, the next Muhammad Ali, the next Toni Morrison? Can you engineer a child’s development in a singularly prescribed direction? Is such parenting a form of extreme controlling? Would you want to do that to your children? Would you have liked your parents to have done that to you?

Questions like these are purely incidental, for the movie is not interested in any answers, not that it needs to be. That’s because it’s all about acknowledging and celebrating Richard’s unique parenting. Any attempt at probing the man’s methods is quickly brushed aside as nosy, intrusive and plain wrong. This couldn’t be made any clearer when one of their neighbours, long disapproving of the Williams’ brand of bringing up children, is told in no uncertain terms by Brandy to mind her own business after she calls the cops to check in on the Williams.

Richard’s scheme would not work without the complete support of his wife and the girls. Brandy, played by Aunjanue Ellis, is onboard to support her husband despite her reservations that Richard is driving the girls too hard at times. Venus and Serena, not yet in their teens, are fully immersed in the sport, their talent and potential shining through more and more until it’s simply impossible to be sidelined by prominent tennis coaches.

Although the other three daughters don’t pick up a tennis racket the way Venus and Serena do, they are one hundred percent supportive and play their parts. The girls not only share one bedroom, they share one family vision. There is so much love and laughter among them it makes you wonder why any neighbour would complain.

The role of Richard Williams is the lynchpin. If we do not warm to the man the story could well turn the other way against control-freak parenting. Will Smith is not only persuasive of his improbable grand plan, but he convinces us of his uncanny predictions. It’s a confident performance, almost brash but always believable, of a man’s unshakeable will to bring his family out of Compton through sport. Will Smith is back on a career high after a string of disappointing performances in Gemini Man, Collateral Beauty, After Earth and Seven Pounds and this is easily his best since The Pursuit of Happyness some 15 years ago.

King Richard is about persistence, hard work, dedication, focus and never giving in. It’s a triumphant feel-good story about underdogs battling against odds, a black family rising through a predominantly white sport. It’s also about parents shaping their children into what they want the next generation to become – but nobody wants to talk about that because this man’s success has effectively quash any debate. If Richard Williams had failed, well, that’d be a whole new ball game of blame and recrimination. He didn’t; and Will Smith’s charm and charisma easily negate any doubt or misgivings you might think you have. Richard Williams is right all along and he has not one but two reigning tennis queens as proof. Hard to argue against that.

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