Written by: Zach Baylin
Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal
In most cases, no one carries more belief in the success of children than their parents. In part it comes from the financial and emotional investment, but also the parental instinct to want them to succeed and even surpass your own accomplishments. This dynamic receives an uplifting and enlightening presentation in King Richard where it seeks to tell the story behind what brought two of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen to the forefront.
Raising his daughters in Compton, California, Richard Williams (Will Smith) knows without a doubt two of them, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) will reach superstardom in the world of tennis. He just wants them to be set up for success, which means more than he can provide by himself, meaning he needs to pave their way.
Anyone with a cursory level of knowledge of tennis knows the name Venus and Serena Williams. Two individuals who have dominated the sport for decades now and have broken the perception of who can succeed at tennis. However, many, myself included, do not know the story of their father Richard and the instrumental ways in which he set up his daughters for success. I personally did know much of what he did, but this film definitely wastes no time in displaying how his level of tenacity, confidence, and belief did everything to put these two girls in the position to show the world what they can accomplish. An achievement of overcoming barriers and even the playing field to show truly where talent beats out everything else.
While feeling like a typical sports drama for most of the runtime, what helps make this film feel refreshing comes from the audacity of Richard Williams and how he interacted with a world where he’s constantly underestimated. From the beginning he makes strange choices that go against the tradition of what others have done in the past, which inevitably ticks people off. On several occasions throughout the film, there are moments where coaches and other advisors want to walk away because of Richard’s demands, but they never can because Venus and Serena were just that good at tennis and the dollar signs could not be ignored. This, however, does not mean he utilized these girls in a negative manner as the film demonstrates what makes him a loving father and how the wellbeing of his daughters meant more than anything else. A stance that made even his most head-scratching decisions look sensible.
With this film getting the seal of approval from the Williams sisters, there runs the risk of this film not going very deep on the least flattering side of their father. Always a risk in biopics where family members are involved. Yes, you can get authenticity, but with the amount of love between Venus and Serena and Richard, it makes sense why they would not want this story to harp too much on the negative side of their father. While there are moments that show Richard has not always been the best father or person to others, it does not receive any real exploration. This could be a critique but I understand it would have made an already long movie into something even heftier in runtime. At the very least, they did not make the guy a complete saint. An intriguing turn comes as the film runs into the third act, it slowly morphs into being a co-lead situation of Venus Williams getting a major spotlight. They, in turn, shared the story leading into the conclusion. In the end, it very much becomes a story about Richard and Venus, which means the focus needed to stay within the sport.
This feature undoubtedly delivers all of the crowd-pleasing moments one would expect with the premise and the cast. One of my favorite aspects came from a lack of dramatization of the matches the girls played seeing as they were supremely better than everyone else. Adding anything fake would have been far too obvious. It does, however, make for many fist-pumping moments as you see young black girls excel and gain notoriety for what they accomplish against all odds. It becomes difficult to not get emotional when watching it because this demographic typically does not get the adulation they deserve in this realm and King Richard makes absolutely no qualms about these two being the absolute best and no larger systemic issue would dare to slow them down.
Very much pieced together as a Will Smith vehicle, he gives a strong performance as Richard Williams. He goes all-in with the looks, accent, and attempts to mimic the man with the plan. Typically with his roles, Smith has difficulty separating his stardom from the character. He’s just that much of a superstar but to his credit, on several occasions it felt like he disappeared into this role as Richard and he sells the performance so well. He manages a level of unconditional kindness but someone who would defend the integrity and dignity of his daughters to his dying breath. Such an endearing performance and perhaps the one that will finally deliver him the gold statue.
Fairly standard in its presentation but potent in its subject matter, King Richard definitely has a bloated runtime but it has so many substantial moments to take in, it becomes difficult to hold that against the film. A wonderful performance by the lead, but equally matched by his supporting cast members, which also includes the great Aunjanue Ellis and Jon Bernthal who both deliver some stunning work as well. This film shows what makes the Williams sisters so impactful but also demonstrates the difficult path it took for them to even have the opportunity, which dictates everything.