The vehicle for Will Smith’s first Oscar win, “King Richard,” was released to theaters and HBO Max during late 2021 to popular and critical acclaim. While many now flippantly regard Smith’s recent outburst at the Academy Awards as his greatest performance, “King Richard” no doubt secures his position as an acting force to be reckoned with.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” follows Richard Williams, the resilient and often overbearing father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, as he endeavors to do the impossible and turn the pair of prodigies into professionals. The jump from the rough tennis courts of Compton to Wimbledon — the proverbial Mecca of the tennis world — is a jump Richard intends to make by any means necessary, working his daughters to the bone while desperately lobbying big names to coach them.
As the Williams sisters begin that climb, Richard must reassess his role in determining their future and consider the relationships he puts on the line in his calculated effort to raise champions. All the while, he deals with the demons of his own past, the expectations he has for himself as a father of five daughters and the tumultuous racial climate following the police brutality faced by Rodney King during 1991.
In many ways, “King Richard” fits the mold of your typical sports biopic, following the rags to riches narrative commonly seen throughout the genre. Where it sets itself apart from the typical fare is in its decision to focus on Richard rather than the women who came to be regarded as the most successful tennis players in the history of the sport. A controversial decision, no doubt, but one that adds tangible nuance to what could have simply been another dull addition to a tired genre.
Richard’s personal struggle as a father hoping to keep his daughters off the streets of Compton gives more immediate drama to his efforts with Venus and Serena. Behind this struggle lurks Richard’s own desperation to avoid becoming like his father, a careless man who abandoned Richard at a young age. This facet adds a fitting layer to the film’s foremost drama.
The pacing in “King Richard” is also impressive. Years pass without a narrative hiccup as Venus and Serena rise through the ranks. This is likewise a testament to the costuming and makeup work. As the narrative moves from the late 1980s to the early ‘90s, both the style changes and the characters age. These shifts are never obvious and happen naturally.
What is most impressive about “King Richard” is the performances of its varied cast. Will Smith as Richard and Aunjanue Ellis as his wife Brandy are the obvious stars. Smith assumes Richard’s mannerisms and speech pattern in a fashion worthy of the best leading actor accolade. Ellis matches him at every turn in her portrayal of a mother of five children dealing with an often overbearing husband. Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena should not be overlooked either. Both bring a demeanor that is at once childish and mature, a duality that is demanded of them as their characters inch further and further into the public eye but still strive to maintain their identity as children.
Overall, “King Richard” checks all the boxes of a satisfying biopic, but brings a fresh enough narrative structure to the table so as to elevate it above the rest. Supporting this structure is a wonderfully paced story and a fully realized cast of characters that reveal a lesser known factor in the Venus and Serena Williams story: the father who helped shape their career and cultivate their success as tennis stars. 4.5/5