Regardless of if you’re a fan of the sport or not, when tennis gets brought up only 2 names are immediately thought of among all the legendary athletes that have graced the court: Venus and Serena Williams. Together the two sisters are in the same conversation as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods as the greatest to ever play their respective sports which they deserve to be because of the sheer dominance the two have reigned over the course of their illustrious careers. Careers they had because of their father Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his 79-page plan for his daughters well before they were born. Sounds like a committed father.
Who doesn’t love a biopic of someone famous, they all lead interesting lives, mostly. Musicians, athletes, academics, politicians – watching their rise to fame and sometimes downfall through struggle, perseverance, scandal all make for a compelling story to be told in a narrative medium. King Richard is no different – but it’s more of a story about the man behind the action, making moves, setting standards, and enacting a plan to see his daughters have a better life than he had. That’s the goal of parents in raising their children – giving them a better life no matter the sacrifice.
Set in Compton California, Richard, and his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) practice tennis around the clock in hopes of finding a proper coach. While he works nights, his wife Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis) works the day shift to support their daughters dream of being the best on the tennis court to ever play. It’s not just Richard’s dream for his daughters to have a better life, both Venus and Serena want it too – hoping to be the role models that millions of girls look up to for inspiration. All of Richard’s hard work pays off when Rick Macci (John Bernthal) agrees to be Venus and Serena’s trainer.
For a biopic King Richard follows the same formulaic approach that most if not all use in telling the story. Coming from humble beginnings, to overcoming extreme adversity, to failing and then finally getting the big break. King Richard has it all but with a focus on family. Richard Williams mission is to keep his kids off the Compton streets which during the early 1990’s was a very dangerous time for minorities. The Rodney King riots are briefly shown but to Richard – he wants a better life for his next Michael Jordan’s.
Smith is fantastic as Williams – showing off a variety of emotions and range throughout the 145-miute runtime. While Richard has his girls’ lives planned out to the minute, his ego gets the better of him – making selfish choices for what he sees as a good reason. And those reasons make sense, his point of view is well written. While his head is in the clouds, his wife Oracene is his opposite – staying grounded and acting more as a realist – working harder while no one is looking. Both Smith and Ellis have great chemistry together, but come on Smith has chemistry with in adamant objects. For Smith, putting out a fantastic performance is expected given his career – King Richard may as well be his Oscar push.
But even with a big name such as Smith playing Richard Williams, this is a story of Venus and Serena after all. And Saniyya and Demi steal the show. Playing a celebrity is no easy task especially if they are the greatest of all time and they both handle it with grace and poise – never letting the moment feel too big for themselves.
Thematically, King Richard is an underdog story. Not many are destined to make it in the way Richard envisioned for his daughters. It takes hard work, discipline, sacrifice and above all else family. Family is the backbone of this film. It gives Richard his sense of identity and he will do whatever it takes to keep his family from becoming a statistic in Compton. It’s truly remarkable what he was able to accomplish. And from the story written by Zach Baylin, Richard is a good man, not forcing his dream on to Venus and Serena – they wanted it just as much as he did but his ego became the antagonist. In wanting to do the right thing, he nearly sabotages everything that was built with blood, sweat and tears.
Like nearly every biopic, King Richard peeks behind the curtain to take a more intimate look into the lives of the biggest superstar athletes today. Following a familiar approach, King Richard never gets too big for its own good with Will Smith giving a powerful performance in the lead role. The 1990’s are given a face lift but still have a vintage atheistic (even though its only 30 years ago). Performances top to bottom are all well-acted especially Bernthal who isn’t playing a villain or an anti-hero like The Punisher. He shows his range as an actor but still gives his character the right tone in reacting to the unpredictable Richard.
The only criticism I can offer surrounds the pacing and running time. Other than that, its bulletproof
King Richard is about family, hardship, race, perseverance, strength, love, and hope. The purpose of a sports biopic is to inspire, and Richard Williams played by Will Smith is certainly an inspirational figure in the sports world with his daughters breaking glass ceilings and pushing boundaries well beyond what anyone thought possible. To bear witness to their accomplishments and number 1 overall players in the sport of Tennis is truly something special in seeing their rise from the bottom. King Richard should be in award consideration conversations, especially Smith.
Written By: Zach Baylin
Directed By: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Music By: Kris Bowers
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, John Bernthal
Where to Watch: In theaters & HBO Max
Release Date: November 19, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 24 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
My Score: 4 out of 5