King Richard review
There’s a line about midway through King Richard that truly symbolizes the magnitude of Richard Williams’ journey. It’s the one played in every trailer when Williams is told he might have the next Michael Jordan on his hands. Williams responds, “No brother man, I’ve gots me the next two.”
History would prove Williams’ statement to not be hyperbole or just an enthusiastic parent dreaming big. Serena and Venus Williams make up one of sports greatest dynasties as they dominated the tennis courts and began shattering records from the moment Venus went pro.
King Richard takes the unusual approach of not focusing on the all-time greatest tennis player or her superstar sister. Instead the spotlight is focused on their father. A sports biopic featuring a black man isn’t that rare, but one focusing on a black father working tirelessly to groom future hall of famers definitely hits unicorn territory.
It’s an ideal project for star Will Smith (Bad Boys for Life), who seems an all but certain to land his third Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Thanks to the post-credit clips of the actual Richard Williams it’s easy to appreciate how Smith’s portrayal does right by the subject matter.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) kicks off the film in an interesting fashion with Richard hustling to get Venus (Saniyya Sidney, Hidden Figures) and Serena (Demi Singleton, Godfather of Harlem) into a tennis academy.
That’s a natural way to showcase Smith’s effortless charisma in channeling Lamar Ball’s predecessor as the most famous father sports personality. Decked out in striped jacket and tight shorts, Smith is a sight, but it’s the subtle aspects like his posture and speech pattern that make this one of his most memorable performances.
Smith is a “few” shades lighter than Williams, but maybe this film wouldn’t have been made without a box office star of his status? Still, it’s hard not to watch and think how Jonathan Majors (Loki) could have just as easily nailed this performance with a closer resemblance to Richard.
There’s little in King Richard to suggest Williams’ life had much meaning until Venus and Serena are at an appropriate age for him to enact his master plan for their lives. That makes sense from a certain extent as the hook here is seeing Richard’s pivotal role in developing tennis legends.
As far as career trajectories for children, steering his black girls to a sport that largely didn’t have many black participants was a savvy choice. Sidney and Singleton do a nice job showing the deep bond of the Williams sisters as well as the determination of Venus and the fierce intensity of Serena.
With the first act, Green shows how meticulous Williams was in training Venus and Serena with a loving, yet firm nature. From placing poster boards with messages like ‘If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail’ and ‘You Are a Winner,’ making nighttime practices in the rain fun and always encouraging them, Richard never even considers the possibility than his daughters won’t become sport icons.
There’s something powerful in a father’s unyielding support and encouragement. Watching King Richard, it’s easy to sense Venus and Serena believed they would become icons on the strength of their father’s belief.
This precise context of King Richard doesn’t allow for much backstory beyond the brief snippets debuting screenwriter Zach Baylin (Creed III) provides almost in passing.
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In another memorable line, Richard said “This world never had no respect for Richie Williams, but they will respect you.”
It’s a telling bit of insight on how slighted Richard felt that this was his endgame. There’s the obvious parental obligation to make sure their children have a better life, but Richard seems to want to vicariously enjoy the success through his daughters denied him his entire life.
That’s hardly new ground for parents, but Baylin doesn’t explore this enough. Richard espouses humility to his children, yet happily brags about his role in their skills and circumvents the instructors he pleaded with to train Venus and Serena.
Baylin makes sympathetic figures out of trainers Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn, Scandal) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, Those Who Wish Me Dead), who almost come off like they’ve been conned by Richard’s gentle, smooth-talking manipulation.
Given the state of student athletes, a parent being overly protective of sending their children out to the masses only to be chewed up and spit out later when they’re no longer the flavor of the month should naturally hold the audience’s sympathy. Yet somehow, Richard comes off like he’s gaming the system in a dishonest manner to coaches that seemingly want the best for the girls.
Despite the title, Venus and Serena’s mother, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams (Aunjanue Ellis, Lovecraft Country), doesn’t get shortchanged as the supportive wife.
There’s a nice montage midway through with Oracene training Serena on a public course while Richard helpfully offers Paul advice in teaching Venus.
The film foreshadows the eventual divorce between the two — Oracene calls out Richard for not being involved in the life of his other children while Richard constantly seems to disregard Oracene’s role and questions how she views him.
Maybe the most astonishing aspect of King Richard is the realization that it could naturally lead to two follow-ups. Venus and Serena accomplished so much in their profession they’re each worthy of their own spotlight film. A third film exploring the twilight of their careers could also be very engaging.
Smith should reap the laurels of his performance in King Richard, but hopefully it won’t be long for sports and biopic fans to get films celebrating the legacy of the William sisters as well.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Check out Richard Williams’ autobiography, Black and White: The Way I See It, on Amazon.
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