THE STORY – Based on the true story that will inspire the world, King Richard follows the journey of Richard Williams, an undeterred father instrumental in raising two of the most extraordinarily gifted athletes of all time, who will end up changing the sport of tennis forever. Driven by a clear vision of their future and using unconventional methods, Richard has a plan that will take Venus and Serena Williams from the streets of Compton, California to the global stage as legendary icons.
THE CAST – Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn & Jon Bernthal
THE TEAM – Reinaldo Marcus Green (Director) & Zach Baylin (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 144 Minutes
By Zoe Rose Bryant
Sports dramas are a dime a dozen, especially during awards season. Whether they are based on real-life athletes or events (“Chariots of Fire,” “The Blind Side,” or “The Fighter”) or created for the silver screen (“Rocky,” “Field of Dreams,” or “Million Dollar Baby”), these stories continue to receive adoration and acclaim from audiences and the Academy time and time again. Even despite their similar story structures, they are one of the most reliable movie genres out there. There is just something about that classic underdog narrative that speaks to film fans near and far, regardless of whether or not you’re a supporter of the actual sport being surveyed; the formula is just too riveting to resist. On the outside, the latest addition to this subgenre – this year’s “King Richard” – looks like crowd-pleasing but conventional awards bait that hits the same beats we’ve seen before, just set apart by its powerful lead performance from Will Smith, who is making a play for an Oscar for the third time in his career. Yet, only after a few scenes, it becomes pretty clear that “King Richard” is cut from a different cloth. Though the film has a familiar framework, there is an infectious power, passion, and poignancy infused in every shot, allowing this story to represent the sports drama at its strongest and most soul-stirring in wonderfully subversive ways.
Since the day his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) were born, Richard Williams (Smith) has had a plan for their future, aiming to train them alongside his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) to become world-famous tennis players. He works towards a goal while simultaneously looking after three other daughters as well, drilling them all on their schoolwork to assure that his girls have both the smarts and skills to spread their wings beyond Compton, California. With Venus and Serena, his methods may be – in a word – “unconventional.” Still, it is apparent that something is working as the girls exhibit an athletic efficiency in the game well beyond their years. However, taking on tennis as a full-time gig isn’t cheap, with costs for gear, training, and transportation often approaching six figures. Therefore Richard, ever the hustler, schemes to acquire free coaching and earn these individuals’ favor after they see what Venus and Serena can do – a scheme that does shockingly succeed. After first working with Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), the man who notably led John McEnroe to fame, and finding fortune on the junior circuit, the Williams family soon relocates to Florida under the tutelage of the raucous Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), the man prepared to take Venus to the pros. But will Richard’s occasionally pernicious personality eventually get in the way of their progress?
It goes without saying given the staggering hype that surrounds him at the moment, but Will Smith is unsurprising – and undeniably – worthy of all the praise he has received as the Williams patriarch, taking on a potentially caustic character and finding the beating heart beneath his rough exterior while never shying away from those faults. At the start, you may wonder if the former “Fresh Prince” is slightly overcooking it with his hunched back and strong accent. Still, it only takes mere minutes for audiences to fully acquaint themselves with his eccentric yet endearing portrayal of Richard, becoming stupefied by both his steadfast stubbornness and his sweet-natured sentimentality. At the heart of all the decisions he makes is a compassionate commitment to his daughters, which Smith conveys in every scene. As an audience, we never doubt his dedication – even when he says or does something that seems suspect. Only a true-blue movie star like Smith could juggle the varying perspectives people apply to Richard and still make him a compelling and congenial character the whole way through, simply because he is just naturally so eminently engaging. However, it also helps that Smith is working off a stellar script that leans into Richard’s complexities instead of disregarding them completely. In doing so, it makes this man feel less like some holy figure and more like a human. And yet, while it is true that he may be no saint, at the end of the day, he is still a father that is just trying to do his best for his girls that he loves with his whole heart, and Smith sells that tenderness splendidly.
Additionally, one of the best elements of “King Richard” is its excellence as an ensemble piece, despite the marketing’s focus around its main star. Training Venus and Serena was a team effort, and the film honors that, giving a surplus of screen time to the lovely ladies in its cast as well, starting with the electrifying Aunjanue Ellis. In a lesser actress’s hands, Oracene could’ve been the stereotypical “wife of a great man,” pushed to the sidelines to prioritize Richard. Thankfully, Ellis makes sure that Oracene’s voice is heard, going toe-to-toe with Smith as they train Venus and Serena and differ on what is best for their daughters (while also taking Richard to task for past transgressions). And, throughout it all, her ferocious love for her family is profoundly palpable, with this endearment being her guiding emotion. Relative newcomers Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are certainly no slouches either. Both give the young Venus and Serena the charisma and chutzpah we associate with the athletes today, with Sidney in particular expertly anchoring the latter half of the film where Venus’ swift ascent into the upper stratosphere of the sports world takes center stage. Despite the expansiveness of her emotional journey, Sidney hits every high and low with the theatrical expertise of an actress twice her age (much like the age-defying athletic adeptness of the individual she’s portraying).
Goldwyn and Bernthal are relentlessly charming in smaller – but no less significant roles as two of the coaches who helped craft Venus and Serena into the icons they are today, with the latter turning in some of his best work to date. Bernthal has been an amusing accessory to many hit films over the years (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Baby Driver” & “Ford v. Ferrari“), but he’s truly doing something different here as this magnanimous Midwesterner, contributing quite a bit to the film’s comedy but also not being afraid to give Richard a peace of his mind when he feels that his resistance is stunting Venus and Serena’s athletic evolution. It’s for sure one of the most “fun” supporting performances of the year, but Bernthal also gives Macci an enticing edge that allows him to leave an even more significant impression. If it wasn’t already apparent that Zach Baylin’s script was a winner for creating such captivating characters as these, his even-handed exploration of the story’s central conflicts – especially when it comes to the crucial issue of whether or not to allow Venus to continue to compete on the junior circuit at risk of burnout (as timely a topic as ever, given recent events in the athletic world) – gives the film a much more meaningful look at the complete costs of raising an athletic legend and the toll it can take on everyone involved.
Most of all, it must be mentioned that the main aspect that separates “King Richard” from similar sports dramas is its particular racial perspective on this type of parable. Richard makes it clear that he doesn’t want his girls to be defined by their race or given “leeway” on account of the color of their skin or the community where they grew up. But it’s impossible to ignore the Blackness that is embedded into the very fiber of the film. This is not just the same old story of some athletes defying the odds and becoming champions – it is a testament to the strength of the Black spirit, a celebration of the ferocious camaraderie found in Black families, and a comprehensive look at the lengths a Black father will go to secure a safe and prosperous future for his Black daughters in a world wishing to beat them down with every chance it gets. It’s impossible to separate “King Richard” from this racial context, and it’d be futile to try, as it is utterly essential to its ultimate emotional resonance and broader social significance in these tumultuous times. “King Richard” shows the Black experience in America at its brightest, boldest, and most beautiful, and it can’t be overstated how dazzling a display that is in 2021.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Will Smith has never been better, delivering a powerful and poignant Oscar-worthy performance as Richard Williams that leans into his complexities instead of flattening his multidimensionality for a movie. The entire ensemble is exceptional, with particularly strong supporting turns from Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, and Saniyya Sidney.
THE BAD – It follows a familiar framework that fans of sports dramas will be privy to.