King Richard dissects the societal restrictions put on a young Venus and Serena Williams, who grew up in 1990s Compton, and how sheer confidence overcame it. Did Richard Williams’ drive and tough parenting create two of the greatest sportswomen in US history, or was it their natural talent that got them to the top? King Richard explores these themes in what’s a charming and heartfelt biopic, led by strong performances and a rousing climax.
Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) transports us back to Compton, one of the poorest Californian neighbourhoods, where Richard (Will Smith) teaches his young daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to be elite tennis players. With five smart and driven girls in the house, the Williams’s do everything they can to stay above the poverty line. Richard does his best to get coaches to take on his two prodigies but the family’s economic, and frankly racial background, means they’re ignored. He puts together a brochure and a crafts a speech, haggling his way into every rich country and sports club available to him.
Eventually, one accomplished coach, Paul Cohen (Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn), is convinced by Richard’s pitch. The problem is, because of the Williams’s family financial means, he can only take on one girl for free. Richard chooses his eldest daughter, Venus, much to stubborn Serena’s disappointment, and the film follows the girls through junior competitions as the only black faces in the crowd, with Richard the outspoken and bolshy parent upset with the entitled attitudes of his peers.
Will Smith puts in his best performance in years as the beaten down but charismatic Richard, who had a chip on his shoulder for years after having to contend with the Ku Klux Klan and the stigma of being a poor, black man in America. He pushes his daughters to succeed, so they never have to feel the same disrespect he did. He’s a complicated figure; charming yet impolite and stubborn, with Smith bringing him to life in a layered performance and a distinctive Louisiana accent.
While it’s clear Smith will get all the plaudits and attention—and rightly so—Sidney and Singleton’s performance also sneaks up on you. Confident and bright, smart, and polite, this duo embodies all the grace and determination we associate with the tennis siblings. Aunjanue Ellis (Lovecraft Country) becomes the heart of the film as Richard’s long-suffering wife, Brandy; a former athlete herself who’s just as invested in the success of her kids, yet not to the detriment of their happiness. To ignore her performance, especially in a later scene where her long-simmering anger towards her husband explodes, would be a terrible disservice.
There’s often a concern when a biopic’s produced by its subject (as Venus and Serena are both involved behind-the-scenes), thanks to a belief it may become a hagiography. Thankfully, Zach Baylin’s screenplay isn’t afraid to paint Richard Williams in a bad light at times. There’s no doubt Richard projected his own hopes and dreams onto his two girls, and he pulled some dangerous stunts on their paths to success. The audience is allowed to decides whether Richard was doing everything out of selfish greed or to protect his family.
The script toes the line when it comes to talking about race, and sometime dips into unsubtle areas. Richard’s uncomfortable meeting with a group of successful coaches is a perfect example of the casual racism many non-white people face on a daily basis. He has no time for their coded language about Venus’s talent, as she’s not just good for a black girl, she’s a good tennis player. In a later moment, based on a 1995 video that went viral a few years ago, Richard interrupts an interviewer to stop him from repeating the same question, trying to squash a then 14-year-old girls’s confidence.
King Richard lets Venus take centre safe in the third act, shifting to her remarkable transition to tennis pro. This isn’t just a shift in the film, but in Richard’s mentality and understanding his daughters must succeed for themselves. While non-sports fans may find the long tennis game finale a drag, this film shares little DNA with other sporting biopics. While there’s a rousing climax that’ll thaw even the coldest of hearts, there are no training montages or supercuts of the Williams’s greatest achievements and moments, nor is there a peppy yet cheesy soundtrack.
It’s difficult not to fall in love with King Richard, for both the film and the man himself. It’s not really a movie about sport, it’s a true-life story about a family who refused to let society grind them down. In the background of the death of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riot, a black family triumphed over race, poverty, and every rich white man looking down his nose at them.
USA | 2021 | 138 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Reinaldo Marcus Green.
writer: Zach Baylin.
starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal & Dylan McDermott.