Why would you take the story of two of the most accomplished female athletes of all time and frame it from the perspective of a man—in this case, their father? That’s the question I found myself asking after the trailer for “King Richard,” a sports biopic directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a screenplay by Zach Baylin. The female athletes I’m referring to are tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, depicted in the film as teenagers rising to success under the guidance of their sometimes overbearing father, the King Richard of the title. But while Richard Williams, as played by Will Smith, dominates the movie, the story still makes room to explore the goals and dreams Venus and Serena hold outside of the plans their dad has meticulously arranged for them from the moment they were born. The result is a film that never deviates from the typical inspirational sports movie path, but is peppered with so many great performances and fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing moments, that that’s okay.
“King Richard” is set over the course of a few years, concluding with Venus’s professional debut. The opening of the film immediately sets up both Richard’s determination and the obstacles the Williams’ family faces being a Black family from Compton trying to make it in a predominantly upper crust white sport, talent or no talent. A collection of scenes sees Richard, clad in short shorts and a scruffy beard, circulating the ritzy country clubs in the area, trying to find backers to help pay for coaching for the girls. He’s shot down repeatedly, one man telling him that maybe they should get into basketball instead. But Richard doesn’t give up, and in between raising three other daughters with wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), a nurse, and working the night shift as a security guard, he spends his days courting potential investors, filming promotional videos of Venus and Serena, and training them daily on the neighborhood’s rough tennis courts before he is finally able to catch the attention of coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn).
Throughout the film, many of Richard’s values are clear, but they are also often at odds with each other. He wants Venus and Serena to be the best, but he also wants them to get to be kids, and get good grades, and not have to sacrifice time with their family. His solution to that is to pull them out of juniors, the competitive matches that novice players typically have to participate in in order to eventually go pro. But at the same time, he seems to push them relentlessly on the court, interrupting their actual coaches to inject his own thoughts on their performance, and even taking them out to play in the pouring rain, prompting a neighbor to call social services on the family. He isn’t going to let the rich white backers talk down to him or dictate what he can or should do, but the lessons he drills into his girls suggest that they ought not to make waves in order to get by in the world. This comes up most obviously following a montage of junior matches in which Venus beats white girl after white girl, her competitors, all young teens like herself, exhibiting a lot of frustration and self-loathing while their parents fume and berate them over their loss. When Richard perceives that the girls are gloating over their win, he takes them home and play them the animated Disney movie “Cinderella” in an attempt to teach them the importance of being humble and kind. Richard occasionally brings up his own childhood in the segregated South, where subservience was often required for survival, but it doesn’t feel like the right lesson to be teaching his girls as they are trying to break down the racial barriers in their chosen sport. And it’s also at odds with some of his scenes in the movie, namely the ones that bring Richard into contact with some of the rough neighborhood gangs, where he comes dangerously close to acting with a violence that’s surprising. The film also sidesteps some of Richard’s other flaws; there’s clearly some martial trouble and allusions to children outside of his marriage to Brandy, but these feel like isolated incidents that occasionally come and go. The Williams’ Blackness is an integral part of the story, but “King Richard” has trouble balancing sobering discussions of racial injustice with its triumphant (and occasionally sanitized) portrait of the family.
There’s no doubt, however, that “King Richard” is thrilling. I am about as far from being a tennis expert was one can possibly be, but the camerawork and editing during the matches have a vitality that made them easy to follow and fun to watch. And the performances are solid across the board. This is Smith’s best role in years, even if he piles on the Louisiana drawl a little too thick at times, and he is given several moments that showcase his dramatic abilities, even though the scenes of light bravado that display his charm suit him better. But even with a solid performance under his belt, Smith isn’t even the best actor in this movie. Ellis, as the family’s steadfast matriarch, is remarkable, her grounded nature the perfect counterpoint to Richard’s sometimes less than realistic expectations. Jon Bernthal, whose bowl cut and thick mustache becomes the most iconic look in a film filled with them, steals just about every scene he’s in as tennis coach Rick Macci, whose enthusiasm over Venus and Serena’s potential and his goals for them constantly puts him at odds with Richard. And Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who portray Venus and Serena, respectively, are perfect. Their chemistry with their sisters is as convincing as their desire to be the best, and they exhibit confidence even in the moments when their characters doubt themselves. As much as the film initially concentrates on Richard, the final half pivots somewhat to bring the other characters to the forefront, and it appropriately ends with an arc for Venus that gives her agency over her life and career. “King Richard” may spend a lot of time talking about Richard’s plans, but it also takes the time to recognize that those plans may not be what Venus and Serena actually want for their life. Venus and Serena Williams both serve as executive producers on this movie, so this is likely the story about themselves that they want to tell in this moment in time: one that pays tribute to the family that helped shaped them, but also establishes their personal hopes and fears at a formative point in their lives. “King Richard” may not turn the sports drama on its head, but it doesn’t really need to. Despite its flaws, it’s a comforting and inspiring watch.
“King Richard” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until December 19. Runtime: 138 minutes. Rated PG-13.