You don’t need to be a tennis fan to know who Serena Williams and Venus Williams are. The sports giants are juggernauts of not just tennis, but not just sports, but pop culture in general. Richard Williams, however, doesn’t quite have the same worldwide stature. Tennis fans knew of him, but now the world over will, with the new movie King Richard, opening up the 2021 incarnation of Film Fest 919. While it’s a bit odd to see a film about the Williams Sisters focus in on their father, a terrific lead performance and a genuine crowd-pleasing aspect help to paper over its flaws. As sports biopics go, this is a pretty solid one.
King Richard sits on its throne due to the work of Will Smith. He’s all-in here and thoroughly rights the ship after a number of misguided recent projects. Without him, the long running-time and reliance on sports film cliches might have been more of a bother. Instead, this really does feel like a solid studio crowd-pleaser, with a chance at something more.
This is the story of Richard Williams (Smith), the father of tennis superstars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton). Though he and his wife Brandi Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) live in the tough California neighborhood of Compton, he has a plan to make better lives for his five daughters. For Venus and Serena, it’s as tennis champs. For years now, the couple has been training their daughters, making them utterly dominant, but they’re at a point where they need professionals if they’re going to make it big. As Richard navigates rejection after rejection, his rough neighborhood and ensuing conflicts only make the chip on his shoulder larger.
Determined to see his plan through to the end, Richard is constantly seeking out the best coaches, like Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), only to still demand his way be the only way. It exhausts them, while continuing to raise an eyebrow from Brandi. As everyone begins to butt heads more about if/when Venus should turn pro, a reckoning is needed. We all know what happens to Venus, as well as Serena, who would surpass her already dominant sister, but seeing how Richard mapped it all out is certainlly compelling.
Will Smith delivers what may well be his best performance to date here. Richard Williams isn’t necessarily a likable character, prone to rubbing folks the wrong way, and Smith doesn’t shy away from that. His work is easily the best part of King Richard. Smith completely disappears into the role. Aunjanue Ellis isn’t given enough to do, but when she gets a scene, she shines. More of her would have been nice. The same goes for Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who are sidelined sometimes in their own story. Supporting players here include the aforementioned Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn, alongside Dylan Mcdermott, among others.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin go all in on the standard sports biopic cliches, but most of them work. Green happens to also have cinematographer Robert Elswit and composer Kris Bowers on hand, so the look and sound of it all is rather good. His pacing, on the other hand, does leave something to be desired. Baylin and Green are languid with certain parts, but then rushing through others. Between that and a few moments that are just too cliched to believe, they knock things down a peg or two. Luckily, Smith is there to pick it all back up. That being said, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at making Venus and Serena supporting players in their own story. They find an interesting story to tell here, but it’s worth remembering them, even if the story focuses in on their father.
King Richard will delight tennis fans, that goes without saying. Could it also be a Best Picture nominee and perhaps even a Best Actor winner? That remains to be seen, but along with a potential Beyoncé nomination in Best Original Song, there’s Oscar hopes here. If the Academy is in a traditional mood, that will benefit this flick. Regardless, King Richard has kicked off Film Fest 919 in solid fashion.