Richard is played by Will Smith, who is also one of the film’s producers. The actor’s charm and star power softens the character of the real life Richard, but he is still an arrogant, bullying, stubborn, know it all pain in the butt. Characteristics which enable him to succeed in his very detailed plan for turning Venus and Serena, (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) into stars – a plan which, we are told, was formulated even before the girls were born. The ultimate in family planning then. The girls though appear to be quite happy with their Daddy’s ambitions for them and love him dearly.
The film begins in the tough, black area of Compton, California, where Richard and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellisde) are raising their family – Venus and Serena plus Brandy’s three elder daughters from a previous marriage, all of whom join enthusiastically in supporting Richard’s master plan for the young ones. The house is modest but clean and tidy and in a ghetto area chosen by Richard to toughen them all up. He trains Venus and Serena on the neglected public tennis court, which he decorates with slogans such as “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”, while protecting his girls from the attentions of the ghetto gangs.
When he persuades tennis coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to train Venus, Richard videos their sessions and Brandy reproduces them on that local court with Serena. And when Richard captures the attention of Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), the family relocates to Florida, where the girls are given places in Macci’s high powered tennis academy.
The film is efficiently structured and very well shot and edited, particularly the tennis sequences, which are made really exciting, even if you have no interest in the game.
It rather gently skirts round however anything controversial, such as racism in a white dominated sport or more personally, the effect her father’s obsession with pushing Venus first must have had on Serena – all dealt with in one brief scene where Richard assures her that her turn will come – which of course it did. Apart from the tennis, the drama tends to concentrate on Richard’s clashes with the establishment and his consistent victories.
We see the real life Richard and his daughters in footage at the end, where he is on his best behaviour for the cameras. But one still can’t help feeling that someone, who has planned to totally shape and control the lives of his daughters even before they were born, cannot possibly be as charismatic and charming as Smith makes him in the film.