‘Tis the season for Oscar-bait biopics! King Richard, which opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max today, tells the true story of Richard Williams, the father of world-renowned tennis champions, Venus and Serena Williams. And what a story it is.
Williams is a somewhat unusual subject for a biopic—he’s not the world-class athlete, but he is the world-class athlete’s dad. But director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin manage to justify the film’s focus with a gripping tale of how Williams, through persistence and what feels like a little bit of magic, managed to pull his family out of poverty in Compton, California by betting it all on his two daughters’ futures as tennis stars.
Will Smith, who also served as the main producer on the film, stars as Richard Williams, while Aunjanue Ellis co-stars as Williams’ second wife, Oracene “Brandy” Price. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton appear as young Venus and Serena Williams before they became the household names everybody knows today.
IS KING RICHARD BASED ON A TRUE STORY?
Yes. King Richard is based on the true story of Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams. In the film, Richard tells anyone who will listen that his daughters are born to be stars and that he has an 84-page plan to achieve that dream. It’s a good story—a great story, even—and one that almost feels too good to be true. Like any movie based on a true story these days, the King Richard credits come with a montage of real-life footage intended to assure the audience of its accuracy. So just how accurate is King Richard to the real Richard Williams?
HOW ACCURATE IS KING RICHARD TO THE TRUE STORY?
Like most movies based on a true story, King Richard is not a documentary, and therefore takes some liberties. However, many of the moments you see in the film—especially moments that are recreations of media clips and interviews—did happen in real life. Both Venus and Serena Williams served as producers and gave the movie their blessing, which, in some ways, adds to the film’s credibility. Small details in the film—like the Williams’ family Volkswagen bus, the hand-made signs the girls would put up at their practice, and Venus’s white beads in her hair for her big match against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
And of course, there are the bigger details that are certainly true—Richard really grew up in Louisana and experienced run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan. The Williams sisters grew up in Compton, and their father began training them when they were just 4 years old. There is a small tweak though—while in the movie Williams says he was interested in tennis because it was a sport that featured so few Black athletes, the real Williams often said he became interested in the sport after watching a women’s match on TV and hearing that the winner, Virginia Ruzici of Romania, won $30,000.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, director Reinaldo Marcus Green said he spoke to the sisters both to get anecdotes to include in the film and to get their blessing to change things. “They were very receptive to me taking some liberties,” he said. (Green said he did not speak to the real Richard Williams, who is now 79.) One major detail left out: Isha Williams, the middle daughter, was also a talented tennis player, trained with the family, and might have become the third Williams sister if not for a back injury. “Life was get up, 6 o’clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school,” Isha told The New York Times. “After school, go to tennis.”
This all said, having the family’s blessing has also made some viewers suspicious that it’s a skewed version of the story. It’s clearly a movie that is sympathetic to Williams, no matter how controversial he was as a public figure in the ’90s. Some criticized the movie for rewriting Williams’s narrative—Slant critic Derek Smith called the film “a transparent attempt at image rehabilitation,” saying that it “excuses, if not outright ignores, the questionable tactics [Williams] used to push [his daughters] toward greatness.”
Some of those tactics that were not included in the film include—according to a 2014 New Yorker profile—banning his daughters from dating, and “to discourage any impulse toward early motherhood, Richard would rip the heads off of any dolls Venus brought home.” The signs that Richard hung were a bit different than what we see in the film, according to that New Yorker article—examples include, “Venus, You Must Take Control of Your Future” and ” Serena, You Must Learn to Use More Top Spin on the Ball.”
Others, like journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan noted for The New York Times in 2014, have observed that Richard Williams has been “controlling the narrative” of the Williams story since the 2002 documentary about his life, Raising Tennis Aces: The Williams Story, made in collaboration (or, as Sullivan puts it, “in collusion”) with Richard himself.
And of course, there was Williams’ autobiography, Black and White: The Way I See It, released in 2014. While King Richard is not officially an adaptation of that autobiography—in fact, Warner Bros and Will Smith were sued last year by another company that bought the rights to that memoir—many of the anecdotes in the book made their way into the film. For example, the story of Richard nearly shooting a gang member comes from his book—though, the way Richard tells the story, he couldn’t find the gang members, and on his way back home, saw one of them lying dead and beaten in the street.
All this is not to say that King Richard is not a true story—it’s more to say to take the narrative with a grain of salt. It’s a great story, no doubt, and it’s also a specific version of that story. But no one can deny he and his daughters have lived an incredible life.