The story of Venus and Serena Williams' ascent to GOAT status is one of pure grit, heart and determination. It's a cinematic look into the life of a young family driven by love, led by their hardworking father, Richard Williams (played by none other than Will Smith). But most of all, it's a sage reminder of the struggles that women, particularly women of colour, have to endure to get to the top.
2021 has been nothing short of a historic year for women in sport. With women making up 49% of competitors, the Tokyo Olympics was named 'The Year of the Female Athlete'. Japan's 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya and 19-year-old Sakura Yosozumi took home gold medals in skateboarding (a historically male-dominated sport and culture), the USA's 35-year-old Allyson Felix finished the games as the most celebrated female track and field Olympian, and New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard was the first-ever openly transgender Olympian to compete.
Despite this, women are still starved for representation in the mainstream sporting sphere. As a spectator, it can feel like outside the Olympics, the visibility of diverse sports heroes on our screens is limited — and there are stats to back it up.
In Australia, coverage of women's sport rarely rises above 10% of total sports coverage on any given day, according to a report from Deakin University. It also states that globally, only 4% of sports media content is dedicated to women's sport. The ripple impacts of this are clear, too — there are multiple studies that conclude that young women drop out of sport earlier and have a general lack of confidence in the arena due to lack of representation and encouragement. Beyond this, there's also evidence of barriers like racism, toxic masculinity and pay disparities that limit the potential of our brightest sports stars.
In an exclusive interview with Refinery29, Serena Williams says, “There would be no Venus and Serena if it wasn't for Richard.” Richard, who according to Williams was "way ahead of his time" is depicted in the film training tirelessly with the girls at night in the pouring rain on a rundown court, leading prayer circles, and fending off neighbourhood naysayers — he even handmakes brochures and home training videos to pitch to snooty, professional coaches in the hopes they take his daughters under their wing.
It's the kind of support and belief all women who wish to pursue sport deserve on a grassroots level, from local clubs to a grander level, from the media and public.
“He's always thinking on a different level. Even now, he is always thinking five steps above everyone else. And the way he taught tennis with techniques, the way he pushed me and my sister, it was a great opportunity to tell his story," she added.
Richard's parenting methods have been well documented by the media over the years — this iconic interview moment is recreated in the film — but his overarching goal was always to push his daughters to be the best they could be. In a career-defining performance, Smith delivers both pain and pride, as he simultaneously protects his daughters from the inequality they face and lifts them up in the face of adversity.
Both Venus and Serena served as executive producers on the film — one of the reasons in which Reinaldo Marcus Green's film oozes authenticity and heart. From the playful dialogue between Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Serena) to their journey from Compton to their first-ever competitions and run-ins with white, wealthy opponents.
"I think systematically women, in general, are always taught just to deal with it, and it'll be okay," said Serena Williams in an interview with Refinery29 earlier this year, describing the unfairness she's experienced on the court over the years as a black woman, as well as her willingness to overcome challenges. "I never stopped. I'm always, always pushing through, but when it comes to this, it just came to a point where I couldn't push through anymore."
The sisters are two of the most recognisable names in sport and wider culture at large. Having wracked up multiple Grand Slam titles, topped world rankings (over and over) and transcended the sports arena in fashion, advocacy and more, it's truly gobsmacking to witness the full scope of achievements the sisters have under their belts.
In King Richard, we're given a front-seat look into what it took to build this cultural phenomenon. While endless training, confidence and some luck do play a role, it shines a light on the figures who have the power to either gatekeep or empower the next generation of sporting heroes. Besides, there's always something endlessly inspiring about a sports movie — even more so in an era where the underdog narrative has never been more critical.
King Richard is only in cinemas from January 13.