If you follow the world of professional tennis, the names of sisters Venus and Serena Williams are well known. But ever wonder about their backstory? How did they become the superstar legends that they are today? Well, in this biopic, we learn all about them and their father/coach.
Hawthorne, California is probably the least likely place to find the world’s best tennis players, but father of five daughters, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is one determined son of a bitch! Headstrong, control-freak, unfiltered mouth, and a gigantic ego, Richard is grooming his two young girls, Venus (Demi Singleton) & Serena (Saniyya Sidney) to be champion tennis pros. Problem is, he needs a professional coach to train them properly (not that he isn’t doing a bang-up job). Through sheer guts and perseverance, Richard secures pro coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn). Seeing the greatness in Venus, Paul takes her under his wing and coaches her to win the junior nationals, but Richard fires him when Paul dares to suggest that Venus is SO good that she is ready for the BIG time!
Richard then hires quick-talking and enthusiastic coach, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), moving the whole family to Florida and to his huge tennis camp where Rick trains winners. BUT! Richard doesn’t want his girls to compete in the big leagues until they A) get a proper education and B) are “ready for it”, despite Macci’s and the girl’s insistence that they want to play. Even Richard’s stalwart wife, Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis), is getting fed up with Richard’s stubborn, all-about-me, antics. Finally caving in, he lets Venus play world champion, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (Marcela Zacarias), after three years of practicing and easily defeats her. Then the $$$ offers start pouring in, but they all get denied!
Finally, 14-year-old Venus gets her dream shot: the final match between her and Vicaro for the world championship in a huge televised stadium. History shows what happened: Vicario pulled a dirty old tennis trick to break Venus’ spirit and flow, but that doesn’t mean the story ends on a sad note. Through continued diligence and father Richard’s driving force (as seen in the end credits home videos), both the girls became unstoppable forces in pro tennis! What’s doubly as impressive is the screenplay, written by first-time writer, Zach Baylin, a TV art director by trade. Even at a lengthy 2hrs and 24mins, the story moves at a crisp pace with almost no downtime. The dialogue is also very real, fresh, and reminiscent of Pursuit of Happyness, another Will Smith vehicle.
Just as impressive is director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell) who handles this docu bio-pic with care and emotion, even though it’s an obvious flag-waving tribute to anyone who’s ever had a dream and the trails to pursuit them. This is another Oscar-caliber film across the board with Will Smith heading the charge in another Academy Award-winning depiction of a real-life person. His Williams is awesome and scary at the same time. But it’s Singleton & Sidney that make the movie with their powerhouse performances of the legendary tennis icons as kids. They have such great chemistry with Smith and each other it’s hard to believe they’re NOT related! And Ellis as Richard’s wife is terrific; a strict, no-nonsense woman who doesn’t take her husband’s ego trips.
Rounding out the cast are Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal, who are always excellent. If you get a chance, check out the many YouTube videos of the real Richard Williams and his many interviews, especially the one where he actually interrupts his daughter’s interview to yell at the interviewer because of his questions! Yeah, he really did that!
**Now showing in selected theaters and streaming on HBOMax