KING RICHARD (Movie Review)

Will Smith earns his Oscar buzz as the ambitious father of Venus and Serena Williams in this crowd-pleasing biopic.

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references)
Released: November 19, 2021 in theaters and streaming on HBO Max
Runtime: 144 minutes
Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn

In theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

If there’s an argument for Will Smith to win an Oscar this year, it may be in the fact that by the end of King Richard — or scratch that: by the end of the opening sequence of King Richard — I was single-mindedly left with a deep admiration for the gritty, dogged, relentless hustle of Richard Williams on behalf of his daughters Venus and Serena, and not left thinking about how great of an actor Will Smith was.

The fact that Smith achieves this veracity while under the Oscar-baity biopic accoutrement of hair, makeup, posture, and dialect transformations is what’s creating all the buzz. That buzz is deserved. It’s the best performance of his career.

Granted, King Richard the movie is a hagiographic take on how Richard Williams groomed two of his daughters to become the greatest female tennis players in the world. It avoids almost entirely the man’s darker Machiavellian shades that a braver, more honest (but also less inspiring) telling would’ve confronted head-on.

And yet, authorized though it may be (executive produced by Venus and Serena themselves), King Richard is a stirring account of not just the virtue of hard work, of believing in yourself and your “team” and never giving up but, more directly, of being willing to bet on yourselves in high stakes gambles even when cashing out for a huge payday becomes so easy and tempting.

In other words, King Richard shouldn’t be entirely believed as the full, true, unvarnished Williams story (because there’s a lot of varnish here), but its themes and ideals are ones worth believing in. This is the version of his (and their) story that’s worth aspiring to.

Richard Williams had a vision for his daughters Venus and Serena since they were born — not just theoretically but literally, written out in lengthy detail — of how both girls would rise from the poverty of Compton to the heights of international tennis.

Following his decades-long plan to the letter, the next big phase was upon them in the early 1990s as both girls were about to become teenagers. That next step was to shift from Richard being their tennis coach to finding the best trainers who would be willing to take a rider on raw, unproven talent.

Broadly speaking, director Reinaldo Marcus Green takes us through the journey of this unconventional story (and man) in conventional ways, but those staples of the Sports Movie help create a familiar framework for a stranger-than-fiction reality, a structure that makes the whole thing more accessible. 

Moreover, Green actually plays these events to our genre expectations, and in a way that makes Williams’ surprising choices all-the-more startling, each one causing us to wonder if Richard is his daughters’ best advocate or their worst enemy.

Also, Green allows for nuance and veracity within that framework. One key example is in how he portrays the two elite tennis coaches (played by Tony Goldwyn and Jon Berenthal) as sane voices of reason against Williams’ riskiest notions. Most biopics would paint them as one-dimensional establishment dinosaurs too stuck in their ways to see the clear and obvious genius of Williams’ various demands and long term vision. But here, these seasoned experts offer sound, wise, and correct counsel. They’re not wrong.

Yet that’s what makes Williams’ belief in his daughters and his commitment to his convictions — ones rooted in keeping his daughters grounded and educated, and not robbing them of their childhoods — so compelling, dramatic, and ultimately rewarding.

It may seem odd that a movie would focus on the dad over the actual known athletes but, as the film’s title, King Richard is a bit misleading, likely a market-driven choice best-suited to selling a Will Smith Oscar vehicle. Yes, it is about how Richard had a vision for his daughters and pursued it on their behalf, but the actual movie itself is about how he, his wife Oracene and their daughters worked together to make it all happen. Richard is not a singular Svengali; their success doesn’t happen without all of them.

In part, it doesn’t happen without Oracene reining in Richard’s worst impulses, something that comes through quite powerfully in an award-worthy turn from Aunjanue Ellis. Whether it be early on in how Oracene carries the weight of Richard’s struggle on her face in worried, wordless emotions or, later on, in how she calls him on his rogue, maverick moves that disrespect her and their shared investment and sacrifice (like a centerpiece showdown in their kitchen, one that gets closest to confronting Richard’s passive-aggressive invective nature), Ellis makes a persuasive case that this is as much Oracene’s story as Richard’s, and that a more accurate title for the movie would’ve been King and Queen Williams.

Berenthal exhibits a whole new range as trainer Rick Macci, an extremely likeable yet driven alpha figure whose focused enthusiasm is against-type for the character actor (someone known more for playing intimidating tough guys). Berenthal is utterly convincing in a role that likely demanded the most of his talents yet. Saniyya Sidney (Fences, Hidden Figures) and newcomer Demi Singleton are also strong as Venus and Serena, capturing their sincere ambitions in a way that imbues them with agency rather than simply being pawns of their father. 

Together, Green and his superb ensemble elevate a good script into an acting showcase and directorial calling card. Yes, they may sugarcoat Williams’ more notorious inclinations, but as a crowd-pleasing underdog story that reinforces strong values, King Richard really works — and satisfies.

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