Will Smith turns in an attention-grabbing performance as Venus and Serena Williams' father in this stirring drama about the two tennis stars' childhood.
January 13, 2022
In King Richard, Will Smith does more acting than expected with his back to the on-screen action. He does more acting in general — while the Ali and Concussion star can be a transformative performer, here he feels like he's overtly playing a part rather than disappearing into a role — but the way his eponymous figure handles his daughters' matches instantly stands out. Richard Williams is a tennis parent who despises the usual tennis parent histrionics. At the time the film is set, in the early 90s, he has also coached Venus (Saniyya Sidney, Fences) and Serena (Demi Singleton, Godfather of Harlem) since they were four years old, and penned a 78-page plan mapping out their futures before they were born. He's dedicated his life to their success; however, he's so restless when they're volleying and backhanding that he can't bring himself to watch.
These scenes in King Richard are among Smith's best. He's anxious yet determined, and lives the feeling like he's breathing it, in some of the movie's least blatantly showy and most quietly complex scenes as well. The Williams family patriarch has wisdom for all occasions, forged from a tough childhood in America's south, plus the hard work and hustle of turning Venus and Serena into budding champions, so he'd likely have something to say about the insights gleaned here: that you can tell oh-so-much about a person when they're under pressure but nobody's watching. If he was actively imparting this lesson to his daughters — five of them, not just the two that now have 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them — and they didn't glean it, he'd make them watch again. When they see Cinderella in the film, that's exactly what happens. But his courtside demeanour is teachable anyway, recognising how all the preparation and effort in the world will still see you tested over and over.
King Richard mostly lobs around smaller moments, though — still life-defining for the aforementioned trio, matriarch Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis, Lovecraft Country) and the rest of the Williams brood, but before Venus and Serena became women's tennis superstars. It unpacks the effort put in to even get them a game, set or match and be taken seriously in a sport that's whiter than the lines marking out its courts, and the chances, sacrifices and wins of their formative years. From cracked Compton courts and homemade hype videos to seizing every hard-earned opportunity: that's the tale that King Richard tells. But, despite making a clear effort to pose this as a family portrait rather than a dad biopic, it still shares an approach with Joe Bell, director Reinaldo Marcus Green's prior film. It bears one man's name, celebrates him first and makes him the centre of someone else's exceptional story.
In screenwriter Zach Baylin's debut script, Richard's aim is simple: get Venus and Serena to racquet-swinging glory by any means. His DIY tapes are bait for a professional coach, but attracting one is easier said than done for a working-class Black family without country club connections facing America's inbuilt racism and class clashes, and tennis' snobbery — even if Richard knows his daughters will reach their goals. A turning point comes when, after strolling into a practice match between Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, Richard convinces renowned coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn, Scandal) to watch his kids play and take on Venus for free. While she's swiftly impressing on the junior circuit, her dad becomes concerned about her psychological and emotional wellbeing, so he next works his persuasive act on Florida-based coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, The Many Saints of Newark) — with a strict no-competition rule.
One of the keys to King Richard, as witnessed in its namesake's decisions about his daughters that he unyieldingly makes alone, also proves an ace when he's looking away courtside. This is a movie about how Richard put Venus and Serena on their path to becoming two of the greatest sports women ever, but it's also about imperfections, struggles and contradictions in the pursuit of excellence. That said, it's an authorised account with the tennis legends and their sister Isha Price as executive producers, so it only dives as deep as that whole situation allows. When it focuses on difficult instances where the overbearing and stubborn Richard blazes ahead but Oracene, Venus and Serena call him out and demand their say, it's a better film, although that happens less often than it should. There's texture, weight and complication here, but also a crowd-pleasing smoothing of rough edges that undercuts the feature's power.
The Williams sisters deserve multiple movies about their extraordinary achievements, obviously. Their careers stress that inherently. The standout scenes they're given here — including Serena's unhappiness when put second to her sister; today, she's the one that's considered the greatest of all time — also dynamically make the case for more of their tale to reach cinemas. While always in Smith's shadow, both Sidney and Singleton are phenomenal, but the film has been designed to be the former's show. With a hunched posture and pronounced Louisiana accent, Smith is an inescapable force surrounded by far more naturalistic portrayals, including from the terrific and grounded Ellis; however, he grows into a rhythm that matches the film's message. He calls upon the charm that's been a part of his game since his Fresh Prince days, too, and pushes because Richard had to to succeed "in the champion-raising business," as the character describes it.
For all the sunny hues splashed around by cinematographer Robert Elswit (a veteran of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Inherent Vice and more), King Richard doesn't opt for gloss with the clashes working against the Williams' dream. Although Venus's professional debut in 1994 at the age of 14 and her pivotal match against then-world number two Arantxa Sánchez Vicario provides the picture's climax, it's sparing with its tennis bouts, but the battles of race and class in Venus and Serena's way are in the draw from the get-go — discussed, and also made so visible that no line calls are needed. It took a flawed yet dogged king to navigate such relentless serves of engrained prejudice and disadvantage and ensure that the world received two queens, the film posits, and does so convincingly. King Richard is still an easy win, though, rather than an all-timer.