King Richard (2021)
Venus, Serena, and a plan for greatness.
Part biopic, part sports drama, and all Oscar bait, director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard is a mixed bag of a film which succeeds in terms of the central performances but lacks a certain luster when it comes to telling the story of arguably two of the greatest tennis players to have taken center court by fixing the lens firmly on their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith), the titular King.
Richard Williams is a flawed man. Bred into a life of poverty and racism, he seeks to lift his family out of a hardscrabble existence by investing his energy into coaching his daughters Venus and Serena Williams into tennis greatness. So sure of his plan to break through into the rarefied world of tennis, he conceived it before his daughters were in the womb. As fate or luck would have it, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) are not only willing participants, they are gifted players.
Living in Compton, California, Richard struggles to find safe places for the girls to practice. Without money to pay for private training or court fees, the girls are left playing on a public court that is often populated by local thugs. Early scenes in the film show Richard taking a beating for defending his stepdaughter. When the girls arrive home, they announce to their mother, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), that Daddy has taken another belting. Richard’s life seems peppered with acts of violence that go back to his early upbringing and shape him as both a man and father. Wanting to escape the circle of poverty is given as Richard’s fair-call motivation for how he treats his family. However, there is more to Richard than just a man seeking to improve the lives of those he loves. There is a darker and more mercenary side that is hinted at in the film but never really given full exposure. It is fitting at this juncture to note that both Venus and Serena Williams acted as executive producers on the film, and perhaps a certain amount of gloss has been applied to the lens of who Richard was.
Hustling for his daughters, Venus, in particular, Richard is able to enlist the coaching services of the esteemed Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who was renowned for training such luminaries as Pete Sampras and John McEnroe. Richard isn’t happy to just allow Cohen to coach as he sits on the sidelines, disputing the techniques being taught to Venus. Richard’s overbearing nature, however, is placed alongside the other “tennis parents” in the Junior Circuit, and in comparison, his approach, which is, at heart, loving and encouraging, looks almost saintly. When agents come sniffing around Venus (Serena has been somewhat sidelined), Richard refuses to engage with them and eventually fires Cohen. Richard’s concern is that his daughters not be exploited, yet to an extent, that has been his purpose all along — after all, who is Richard Williams without his talented daughters?
Richard secures a place for the Williams family with famed tennis coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). Moving from Compton to Florida signals a huge change in fortune. For the first time, Serena is getting professional coaching (something her mother took over when Richard’s efforts were focused on Venus). Life at the Macci compound vindicates Richard’s struggles to an extent, however, he is not ready to toe the line when it comes to his daughters’ careers. He pulls Venus from the junior circuit competition, which confounds Macci and Venus herself. Whilst he keeps Venus from competing, he still runs a campaign for her as one of America’s brightest upcoming talents by ensuring she is interviewed by the press and just as often ensuring he is too.
Richard is a complex character and often hard to like, even if the audience is told to sympathize with him. Will Smith, Men in Black (1997), does an excellent job of exposing the layers of the character, and the scenes where he is vulnerable and stripped of excess are the most effective set pieces in the film. No matter how good the other performances are — and be assured Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene Price is absolutely stellar — there is little doubt that the film is crafted to allow Smith to shine. Saniyya Sidney, Fences (2016), is particularly fine as Venus, especially when the film allows the story to rest on the sisters and not their father, even for the briefest moments.
As a character study, King Richard is top-notch, but it fares not quite so well as a sports drama. It’s natural that the film will show a lot of tennis practice, but there comes the point where the same shots of racquet and ball seem unnecessary. The film is only concerned with Venus and Serena up until the age of fourteen, so few actual matches are shown. This seems to be somewhat a shame because the one game that is given significant screen time in the film is quite riveting.
King Richard is undoubtedly a Will Smith vehicle that allows him to, once again, flex his dramatic chops in a way that resembles his best performance in Michael Mann’s Ali (2001). I suspect that how the audience takes to the film, in general, will almost certainly rest on how invested they become in Smith’s performance as Richard. If the investment isn’t there, then the film will seem somewhat flat and at times indulgent. It will also lead one to wonder why a film that features the Williams sisters does so little to actually feature them; however, that is for another film and not something that Green or scriptwriter Zach Baylin were intent on making.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney