Legendary tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams finally get the cinematic treatment in the Warner Bros. movie King Richard, but much like in their real lives, they must share a significant portion of the movie spotlight with their domineering if loving father, Richard Williams, played by Will Smith. This may not be a bad thing, however, as audiences are likely curious about the eccentric, bombastic patriarch of the successful family. The film, in all other respects thoroughly conventional as a crowd-pleasure, does not disappoint in that regard. Despite its orthodox contours, it will nevertheless deliver a sense of profound admiration for a story of perseverance, determination, and improbable success.
When we first meet Richard and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), the former is carting the couple’s collective six daughters around town in a minivan. His standards of excellence and hard work are strict and unforgiving, necessitating, as an example, repeat viewings of the film Cinderella to teach his girls lessons about humility. Richard has high designs for his daughters, including, as he frequently refers to it, an unspecified “plan” that is supposed to culminate in Serena being the greatest tennis player in the world and Venus winning the most Wimbledon or Grand Slam titles of all time. To achieve this, Richard, a tennis coach and player in his own right, submits the girls to grueling hours of practice in addition to rigorous study hours, language lessons, and domestic chores. Despite this, the family appears happy, supportive, and loving.
Richard faces external challenges as well, not simply because of the endemic discrimination he knows his children will face in all of their endeavors, including principally in the world of tennis, but also because they live in the difficult Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton at a difficult time—the tumultuous moments of the 1980s and 1990s riots there.
As King Richard unfolds, the titular character must insert himself in rich country clubs, tennis courts, and luxurious enclaves to find both a sponsor for his talented daughters as well as someone willing to coach their talents so that they may mature into greatness. Eventually, they do find someone willing to help in the form of legendary tennis coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and, because success begets success, later, the even greater Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who runs a tennis camp out of Florida. Financiers like Will Hodges (Dylan McDermott) shows up to help the girls (played by the talented Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) take their game to the next level.
As noted, King Richard is conventional in every element. The narrative structure is linear, the overarching plot proceeds dutifully towards its known conclusion, the bumps along the road are threatening, entertaining, and even scary, but never get fully in the way of the predictable proceedings. There is little flash to the surroundings, with unobtrusive cinematography by Robert Elswit and straightforward editing by Pamela Martin, shining the most during back and forth volleys of the ball across the court. For director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, Monsters and Men), this is his most mature offering yet, because he recognizes that the power of this story is simply in telling it and not trying to oversell it. Probably the most notable below-the-line work for this film belongs to Costume Designer Sharen Davis, who has fun with not just the tennis outfits (including the somewhat ridiculous, perpetual coach attire that Will Smith wears) but also the subtly dated clothes from thirty or so years ago.
The power of King Richard lies in the inspiration that the Williams’ sisters’ trek to fame will inevitably cause, as channeled through the scene-stealing performance of Will Smith as their father. The film portrays him as a mostly benevolent, loving figure, and in that sense loses nuance and complexity. By the time it becomes clear in the film’s third act that there was a darker side to the magnanimity, to the endless love, and the stringent demands, it is a bit too little too late. You won’t escape the feeling that this is a sanitized fairy tale, glorifying the work of the man at its center while brushing away some of the peccadillos. Not that this is in any way unique to this movie. Many biopics where the person being feted became involved with the project (think, for example, Rocketman) gloss over the nicks and dents of the protagonist in favor of straightforward idolatrizing. Most audiences, even those that surrender themselves to this film’s undeniable charms, know better.
Ultimately, King Richard is supposed to be an acting showcase for Smith himself, his supposed Oscar moment. I have my doubts. While his performance is powerful, it is obvious and at times even forced. The accent is thickly and purposefully delivered and, again, his character is mostly devoid of layers. He is a difficult man but he is full of love, of determination, of grand visions for his “plan,” and, therefore, beyond reproach. This limits Smith’s ability to navigate the emotional spectrum that more memorable renditions of real-life people can deliver.
Still, this is an undeniable movie, just as the talent of its stars, and the determination of its prelate are. The film is effective because it resorts to movie magic 101, making you root for it despite knowing the outcome, making you laugh with despite sensing that the jokes are staged, and making you cry with it despite foretelling the triumphantly happy ending.
King Richard had its World Premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and will be released domestically on November 19, 2021.
All pictures courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.