Not unlike the man himself, King Richard, the film, feels like a project inspired by and successful due to belief. Yes, at its core, there is not much audiences have not seen before in this sort of inspirational sports story. The players are different, and the journey travels an alternate road, but the film relies on a familiar framework. And yet, producer and star Will Smith has brought on all the people he needed to make a film that achieves precisely what it sets out to do. Yes, it has some trouble balancing certain elements, and it’s sometimes a bit too wholesome to truly embrace particular challenges. However, even as a family-friendly drama, King Richard makes many of the right moves to tell the story of gifted athletes and their fervent father.
Smith stars as Richard Williams, a man determined to realize the 78-page plan he has written out for his daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Richard knows he is raising two extraordinarily gifted tennis athletes and does all he can to attract coaches who can help bring his plan to fruition. If Richard succeeds, he can move his family out of the ghetto (Compton) and help set up his daughters as legendary icons.
It’s easy to see where the issue with this story may lie based on how it has been described. How do you take the origin story of superstar athletes Venus and Serena Williams and focus on their father? Fortunately, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin have something of an answer that may not satisfy everyone but allows the film to feel pretty open in what it’s trying to put on display without undermining the accomplishment of these women.
No doubt, this is the Smith show. While it’s not hard to point to his hunger for an Oscar, anyone keeping track of Smith’s recent films can see the actor continuing to analyze his position as a leading man through his choice of roles. Yes, Gemini Man¸ Bad Boys for Life, and even the animated Spies in Disguise had various ways of challenging Smith regarding his age, relevancy, and decisions to rely on support. King Richard is about a man who has been hit hard by life, made bad decisions in the past but knows he can use those struggles as his own motivation for pushing his daughters further, and helping to shield them from whatever adversities he can.
Along with his unconventional tactics, he is most assuredly helped by his wife, Oracene Price (a terrific Aunjanue Ellis). She works as hard as him, despite receiving far less praise for her efforts. Where Smith relies on both his natural charisma and his effective way of conveying drama through sheer focus, Ellis knows how to match him when the time calls for it. King Richard may not be a two-hander, but the film is most powerful when Smith is sharing the spotlight with his supporting cast members.
The same can be said for young Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams. King Richard wisely tilts the film in her direction later in the second half, further justifying the choices made to tell this story. As a result, while I still can’t say we learn enough about the two girls and their journey, there’s an appropriate arc to this story that reflects Richard’s teachings and what it means to be pushed to be the best one can be by a parent so steadfast in their plan. This comes through in some crucial moments involving actual tennis matches, whether recreating the sport in action or simply introducing Venus’ famous beaded braids.
Making this journey more significant for all involved is how the film calls out Richard’s flaw. Now, being a film that needs Smith to remain likable, King Richard isn’t about to get into all of the real man’s business, let alone where things go, following the 90s (the film is set during the budding stages of the Williams’ sisters’ careers in the mid-90s). However, some key scenes spell out how decidedly different things could go for Richard depending on his choices and how he’s messed up with his previous relationships. It’s enough to keep Smith’s performance a tricky balance of emotions to work on, and yet he’s excellent in this role.
Fortunately, there are more than enough lighthearted elements to go with this story. In his efforts to get the attention of important people, the film’s first half has winning energy whenever we watch Richard hustle his way to getting noticed by some coaches. Tony Goldwyn co-stars as Paul Cohen, who finds himself impressed with Venus and Serena, despite contending with Richard’s way of coaching. Later on, Jon Bernthal delivers fantastic work as Rick Macci, a famous coach (with a great mustache). His capacity for being an amiable and hard-working figure is pushed to its limits by Richard.
The thing is, the audience gets to see a lot of what many saw on the news about Richard Williams. It’s not just that he pushed his girls to be great tennis stars. He also pushed himself into the limelight. Was that for his benefit? The film has some interesting answers to that, but a lot of it comes from helping to build the confidence for his daughters while protecting them from the effects the media and certain kinds of accolades can have on young stars.
If there’s an area where the film feels as though it comes up short, it’s in taking on that racial component and exploring those challenges more. There are implications and some clear callouts to where this family has come from and how seriously Richard is taken. However, seeing a montage of proud white parents frustrated that their daughters are being beaten in the courts by Venus only goes so far when the film holds back from dealing with what I’m sure were many scenarios that took her skin color into account, despite her obvious superstar talent.
With that in mind, there’s a certain kind of image this film is going for, and I’m not out to fault it entirely based on lessening the intensity of one element of this story. For all the drama that unfolds, I was just as happy to see how the family bonding feels so natural. Venus and Serena have three half-sisters, and just scenes of each of them bonding keep the film feeling grounded and well-meaning. The same can be said for the way Smith portrays the early day-to-day of Richard, as he gathers up tennis balls and rides around in his old VW van. King Richard wants to put the grassroots of the Williams family on display, and it’s handled very effectively.
King Richard is not hiding what kind of film it is. Audiences should know what they’re getting into, even if they don’t know all the details that paved the way for Venus and Serena Williams to become the stars that they are. With that in mind, the film has its heart in the right place and makes the right moves to have the movie appropriately tug at the heartstrings without going overboard to get a viewer there. Much like Richard’s tactics, this may be an unconventional angle for telling this story, but hard work and belief have led to a film that stays inbounds and scores a win for its performers especially.