by George Wolf
You know how many parents are convinced their kid is destined for athletic greatness? Quite a few, and that’s just in your neighborhood.
So how – and why – did Richard Williams’s predictions for daughters Venus and Serena come so incredulously true?
That’s a compelling story, one that King Richard tells with enough restraint and humanity to sidestep most sports movie cliches and find layers of true inspiration.
The Williams family – Richard (Will Smith), wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton), and three additional daughters from Brandi’s previous relationship – weren’t exactly welcomed into the L.A. tennis community when Richard put his master plan in motion.
Tennis was a sport for the rich and the pale. They were a Black family from Compton, often dodging gang activity for a chance to practice on run down community courts. Richard was dogged in his search for a coach, first landing Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) before Venus earned the entire family an invite to Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal, playing delightfully against type) exclusive training center in Florida.
In his debut screenplay, writer Zach Baylin follows a fairly standard biopic formula, but manages to weave in necessary layers of nuance. While we see that the doubt Richard encounters about his daughters’ future greatness is understandable, the added barrier of racism is understood without an overplaying the hand. In fact, Baylin’s script (or the editing bay) occasionally downplays obstacles that the Williams’s surely encountered all too often, seemingly mindful of the film’s 138 minute running time.
But director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) has a good feel for pacing, with well-placed bits of tension, humor and impressively-staged tennis sequences that never let the film feel sluggish.
And while you can hardly be blamed for detecting the whiff of “Will Smith Oscar bait” in the air, don’t be surprised if he lands his third nomination. The film is an inspirational crowd pleaser that steers refreshingly clear of pandering, and Smith responds with a performance that leans into the colorful personality of Richard Williams while checking his penchant for heavy-handed mugging.
It helps that Smith is constantly elevated by Sidney and Singleton, the two wonderful young actresses playing Venus and Serena, and the always amazing Ellis (Lovecraft Country, Ray, The Help). Though Brandi’s character is often strong and silent, there are fine moments that prove just how vital she is to the Williams plan. And by the time Brandi is dressing down Richard as just another man that won’t admit he’s scared, it’s clear how vital Ellis is to the film’s resonance.
Though Venus and Serena get Executive Producer credits, the film doesn’t ignore some problematic areas in Richard’s personality, and Smith makes the mix of crazy-like-a-fox determination, gentle humor and hidden scars one that -like Smith himself – is hard to dislike.
As the older sister and the first to find success on the tour, it is Venus that gets much of the film’s focus. But Richard’s prediction for Serena (“the best ever”) serves as a natural pivot to send us home with a reminder about how lucky we’ve been to witness their greatness.
And as the best sports movies always do, King Richard scores often enough to land its message past the fault lines. The Williams plan may have been heavy on tennis, but it’s anchored by life lessons that not only benefitted all of Richard and Brandi’s children, but would undoubtedly be an asset in any arena.
So what made Richard’s vision so much clearer than every other parent in the stands?
Just some unending determination and confident stubbornness. Plus two daughters with once-in-a-generation gifts, the passionate drive to excel, and the desire to make the road a little smoother for the next young phenom that isn’t white or wealthy. That helps, too.