How much of the movie ‘King Richard’ is actually true?
(Credit: Netflix)

Films

How much of the movie 'King Richard' is actually true?

Sports biopic King Richard is now arguably most famous for its association with the Oscars incident in which the film’s lead actor, Will Smith, slapped ceremony host Chris Rock on stage. This is unfortunate because the movie is a creditable, moving portrayal of the childhood relationship between tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams and their father, Richard. And Smith’s performance deserved better than to be overshadowed by his actions on Oscar night.

Netflix has made the most of adding the award-winning movie to the roster on their platform. They managed to push it into their top-ten most watched releases earlier this year, despite the mixed showing their tennis-themed media has experienced. Docuseries Break Point may have been cancelled due to lack of interest, but the compelling story behind two of America’s greatest sporting heroes is a smash hit with audiences.

But is King Richard the real story of the Williams sisters and their indomitable dad? Or are we seeing a fictionalised account of Richard Williams driving his daughters to unprecedented success?

The fact that Venus and Serena Williams both served as executive producers on the movie, having final veto on all aspects of its production, suggests that it certainly has the ring of truth about it. However, the direct involvement of the Williams family could mean we’re watching a sanitised or glorified version of the family’s patriarch too.

So let’s separate the facts from the falsehoods, the history from the hyperbole and hearsay.  And examine which parts of the film really happened, and which didn’t.

The 78-page plan

The Richard Williams we see played by Smith in the movie isn’t one to do things off-the-cuff. To say he’s a planner is an understatement. Incredibly, he writes a 78-page document he writes to plan out the entire future tennis careers of his two youngest daughters before they’re even born.

What’s even more incredible, though, is that part of the story is entirely true. It’s taken straight from the pages of Williams’ autobiography Black and White: The Way I See It.

What’s more, Williams really did reference his plan in a conversation with the 12-year-old Serena Williams, in which he told her, “You’re gonna be the greatest of all time.” The conversation happened pretty much exactly as it did in the film.

Just as King Richard depicts, the half-sisters of Venus and Serena were playing a supporting role to their younger siblings’ budding tennis careers. Richard sometimes had the older daughters of the family acting as ball girls during their sisters’ practice sessions.


What’s not true is that older half-sister Isha Price was always destined for her career in law. Richard initially planned for her to be a professional tennis player, too. And she was, before retiring in her early twenties back in 2002.

Richard’s training regime

The movie is wholly accurate in portraying the exhausting daily routine Richard Williams imposed on his daughters. Venus and Serena trained every evening after school, come rain or shine, and were forced to watch replays of tennis matches on repeat. The scene in which their father teaches them how to hold tennis racquets as babies comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

Where King Richard errs from reality is in shying away from just how extreme Williams could be as a trainer. In fact, he had his daughters start practicing as soon as they woke up. Isha Price described a typical school day for her and her sisters to the New York Times back in 2012. “Life was get up, 6 o’clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis.”

Williams once had a group of schoolchildren brought to their training court to hurl insults at them while they practised. And the signs he hung around the court were much harsher than the ones depicted in the film. Rather than “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail”, he would hang messages such as, “Venus, when you fail, you fail alone.” Quite the motivator.

Targeting by gangs, neighbours and police

In his book, Richard Williams relates incidents in which he was beaten up by local gangs in Compton, just as the biopic portrays. What it doesn’t show is that sometimes gang members also stepped in to reprimand him for verbally abusing his daughters.

The film does include a scene in which neighbours call the police and child protection services to the WIlliams household due to fears that Richard and he wife were abusing their daughters. That scene apparently plays out exactly as it happened in real life, thanks to the cast and crew’s close consultation with Isha Price, who was present when the true incident occurred on set.

Richard’s altercations with Compton gangs escalate in the movie to such an extent that, at one stage, he brings his gun home from working as a security guard with a view to confronting a gang member who’s been harassing his stepdaughter. It then shows him witnessing a drive-by shooting as he goes after the gangster.

While this incident did happen in reality, the film exaggerates it for dramatic effect. Richard did bring his gun home, but he didn’t witness the shooting. By the time he went to confront the gang, the drive-by attack had already taken place.

Diversity in tennis was Richard’s motivation

It’s certainly the case that Venus and Serena faced racial abuse when practising and playing tennis as young girls. However, it’s not the case that Richard’s desire to overcome racial discrimination against black tennis players is what made him choose the sport for his daughters.

Instead, his primary motivation was cold, hard cash. He told CNN in 2015 that he’d been inspired by seeing Romanian tennis star Virginia Ruzici win “a hell of a lot of money for four days” playing in a tournament.

“I went to my wife and said that we have two kids, and we’ll become rich,” he explained. “They’re going to be tennis players.” He was absolutely right.