Sisters Venus and Serena Williams are two of the most famous – and best – tennis players in the world. Their rise to success is quite the invigorating and involving tale, and it’s one driven by the determination of their parents, particularly their father, Richard. The patriarch of the family takes center stage in King Richard, the spotlight of one man’s desire to see his offspring succeed, so confident in the strength of his plan that he put everything he had into shaping their future. Most doubted that it could be true, but it turns out he was right.
The opening scene introduces Richard Williams (Will Smith) in a semi-comedic context, telling anyone who will listen that his daughters are going to grow up to be the best, and that they would be lucky to get in on the action now to coach them. Even after no one bites, the Shreveport native continues to train his two daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), on the courts in Compton, California, getting creative to ensure that they are seen by those with power, like Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), coaches who are unprepared for just how much influence Richard plans to exert over his daughters’ professional future.
This isn’t the kind of movie that will keep audiences guessing about how things will pan out since Venus and Serena have achieved an incredible worldwide fame. The hook here is to see how they were shaped and molded, and how deeply Richard impressed upon them a drive for perfection and his own hopes and dreams. There are moments where he makes a call that contradicts both the coach’s advice and what his daughters want, and he has his motives questioned since he constantly wants to do something in a different way than it has always been done. But that’s the epitome of Richard: a man who never wanted to be told by someone that he had to do things any way other than how he had planned.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for a comprehensive portrait of the two tennis stars the world knows now, in part because it would be impossible to capture their entire stories in the span of one feature-length film. Serena actually plays a relatively small role in the story since it was Venus who captured the attention of coaches early on despite Richard trying to sell them as a package deal. The title of this film should be indication enough that the focus is on their father, who himself possessed a great deal of talent that enabled him to train his daughters, and enough ingenuity to figure out how to get around obstacles, like videotaping all of Venus’s sessions with Cohen so that his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis) could give Serena the same lessons.
It’s an interesting moment for this film to be made given that all of its subjects are still alive and relatively active. Venus and Serena have achieved an unprecedented renown, now forty-one and forty years old, respectively. Though Richard and Brandi are no longer married, they are still in the limelight. The world of this film feels like so long ago and far away and simultaneously eerily relevant, with Richard talking about how, growing up, he was too busy running from the KKK to do anything else. He makes repeated mentions of the color of his family’s skin that he understands all too well is a barrier that will be monumental to overcome, noting how often they are treated as if they are out of place or that their talent is a surprise.
Smith, an actor who was first foraying into the world of movie stardom around the same time that the Williams sisters were making their debut, dives fully into the role of Richard, adopting his speech patterns and his unrelenting persistence, which often drives would-be collaborators away. It’s a performance reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated turn in The Pursuit of Happyness, though Richard is considerably less humble than Chris Gardner and even more self-assured about his ability to deliver, despite constant objections from all those around him. Smith is surrounded by an impressive ensemble who aid his story, one that’s full of optimism and exciting energy, particularly when its young talents step onto the court. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green pivots from more serious projects like Monsters and Men and Joe Bell to deliver an enjoyable product infused with frequent doses of humor. Its 138-minute runtime is indeed long, but it’s an endearing ride that delivers a predictably positive and affirming ending.
King Richard is screening at Film Fest 919 and will be released on November 19th in theaters and on HBO Max.