King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, centers on Richard Williams —the father of tennis pros Serena and Venus Williams. Taking place during Serena and Venus’ childhood, the film focuses on Richard (Will Smith) and his ambitions to turn his girls into pro tennis players. Richard has laid out a plan for Venus and Serena’s life, which sees him butt heads with everyone from his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) to tennis pros including coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and teacher Vic Brayden (Kevin Dunn). Richard eventually convinces tennis coach Rick Macci (Jon Berenthal) to take on the girls, which raises even more obstacles when Venus attempts to turn pro.
The film takes its title from the regal and often overbearing mannerisms of the titular patriarch, and Smith throws himself into the role with gusto. Smith is virtually unrecognizable in the role; he’s grown a scruffy head of hair and a matching beard streaked with grey, he’s adopted Williams’ trademark Louisiana drawl and fiery temper, and he’s never seen without gym shorts and a windbreaker. Scenes of the real-life Richard Williams spliced in with the end credits show just how seriously Smith took this role.
While King Richard may a total 180 from his trademark roles in blockbuster films such as Men in Black or Independence Day, it also shows that Smith has hidden depths that I hope he continues to plumb in future projects. His chemistry with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play Venus and Serena respectively, will also tug at viewers’ heartstrings; you’ll genuinely believe they’re a family. A scene where Williams confronts a group of teens who try to hit on his daughter Tunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew) also radiates fatherly energy — and fury, which leads to a scuffle with the teens later in the film.
Another surprise is how the film approaches Richard’s unorthodox 78-page plan that he drew up for the twins. This includes heading to the downtown courts in Compton for training; using Cinderella as an example of staying humble whether they win or lose, and even pulling them out of the junior tennis circuit by claiming he wants them to have a normal life. But the most shocking moment has to be when he drives away after hearing them celebrate their victory — a move that Brandy berates him for. Given that most films “based on a true story” often tend to lionize their subjects, it’s refreshing to see one that acknowledges its lead’s flaws and also challenges his point of view. It’s also a genuine surprise given that both Williams sisters produced the film alongside Smith.
While much has been made of Smith’s performance, I also have to give props to Ellis and Berenthal for their roles in the film. As Brandy, Ellis also bucks a longtime tradition of the biopic; she’s not a passive player but rather a very active one. When the junior circuit only takes Venus, Brandy continues to train Serena. And when Richard stubbornly refuses to let Venus play pro, she dresses him down saying that his numerous plans are a front for his insecurities. Ellis previously showed that she could deliver an amazing performance in Lovecraft Country, and that continues here. Like Smith, Berenthal captures Macci’s look and mannerisms, including a thick moustache and jocular attitude; he also may be the best part of the film alongside Smith. In the same vein as Ford V Ferrari, Berenthal can’t help but steal scenes with an incredulous look or an exasperated outburst.
What helps the film pop is Green’s direction and Baylin’s script. Though they do stumble into a familiar rhythm, with Green favoring more than a few montages and Baylin scripting the typical “final match” that comes with nearly every sports drama’s third act — they excel at exploring the Williams family dynamic and how it changes when it meets the world of pro sports. Green also excels at staging conversations between characters, with Baylin crafting some firecracker dialogue; a meeting with Richard and executives at a country club winds up with Richard pointing out some loaded (and borderline racist) slogans that they’re trying to heap on him.
King Richard transcends the usual glut of Oscar-bait films, thanks to a powerhouse performance from Will Smith. Between this and the Disney+ docuseries Welcome To Earth, Smith is entering a new phase of his career and I would not be surprised if King Richard wins him an Oscar or draws him into the orbit of more prestigious films.
King Richard is currently playing in theaters and will be available to stream on HBO Max through December 19.
King Richard transcends the usual glut of Oscar-bait films, thanks to a powerhouse performance from Will Smith. Between this and the Disney+ docuseries Welcome To Earth, Smith is entering a new phase of his career, and I would not be surprised if King Richard wins him an Oscar or draws him into the orbit of more prestigious films.