Film

Review: King Richard Explores the Driving, Fatherly Force Behind a Tennis Dynasty

Richard Williams was a man with a plan—an actual written-down plan, dozens of pages long—for each of his many children, mapping out their lives as a path toward guaranteed success. These plans allow for no wiggle room and are forged before each child’s birth, but there is a method to his madness because his road to success paved the way for the legendary tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, whose achievements seem to be the product of raw talent and the absolute belief that there was no other option but to be the greatest, as their father raised them to believe. As one might expect, being raised by a man who expected perfection was not always easy, but somehow the Williams family found a way to make it work, and King Richard documents that journey while pulling no punches when it comes to underscoring issues with his ego pushing his daughters at a time in their lives when maybe they’d just like to be kids.

King Richard

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Will Smith slips effortlessly into the role of Richard Williams, disappearing so completely into the part that it’s difficult to even see him acting. Some might call the performance and the film Oscar bait, but to do so would be to deny the magnificence of the work Smith is doing, constantly rubbing people the wrong way, sometimes for good reason. But there are other times when you have to just step back and admire Smith. The Williams family lives in Compton, California at a time when gangs ruled the area and drive-by shootings were the reality of day-to-day living. Williams stood up to gangs that claimed the tennis courts where he trained his daughters as their own. He was frequently beat up for confronting them, but he always came back the next day, working with his girls on drills, rain or shine.

In addition to Smith, King Richard has a small army of secret weapons in its cast, first and foremost Aunjanue Ellis as Richard’s wife, Oracene “Brandy” Williams, who backed her husband in most of this eccentricities but looked out for her kids’ best interest, sometimes putting herself at odds with her husband. When Richard sees the kids actually acting like the children they are, he gets frustrated with their lack of focus on his goals for them. But Brandy sees those moments as essential to allowing children to be children and not growing up to resent their father for riding them so hard all the time.

Additional acting firepower comes from Saniyya Sidney as Venus (who also happens to look remarkably like a young Venus) and Demi Singleton as Serena, whose road to success was forced to take a back seat briefly while the elder Venus was trained by professional coaches (whom Richard convinced to take her on after applying a hurricane’s worth of pressure). One might think that handing off his daughter’s training to a proper coach might lessen his involvement, but you’d be completely wrong. First he worked with Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who trained the likes of John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. But the second Richard believs a coach has given his girls all they could, he moves on. In this case, he moves the whole family to Florida to work with Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, exceptionally enthusiastic), who had a veritable factory of great tennis trainees—which in no way meant Richard was taking a backseat to anyone.

The closer the Williams family comes to achieving their goals, the more paranoid and irrational Richard becomes. First, he keeps Venus off the amateur competition circuit for fear of her burning out too young, despite Venus and Macci both wanting her to play against others her age and (presumably) skill set. Richard is always keenly aware of Venus’s profile as a young Black girl from Compton and what that means to other Black girls who want to do things normally reserved for those who are white and of a different economic class (there are plenty of sideways glances shown as the Williams family arrives at any tennis event or venue).

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell), working from a screenplay by Zach Baylin, could probably have made this sports biopic more centered on Venus and Serena, but it’s impossible to tell their stories without seeing it through the filter of Richard’s master plan and tenacious spirit. He has a philosophy at the ready for every decision he makes and approach he takes, and if you don’t agree with it, there’s the door. He punishes his kids for openly mocking a lesser player on the car ride home, forcing them to watch a Disney movie that best illustrates the lesson of humility he’s trying to teach. That may not sound like a punishment, but when the kids miss the point of the film, he gets ready to show it to them again until they figure it out.

Some of the film’s best moments come when Richard and Oracene butt heads, especially in one especially devastating clash that takes place when they move into their new Florida home and Oracene berates Richard for taking too much credit for the girls’ success, when she has been just as active in their training every step of the way. A lot of details about the history of their marriage come out in that fight, but they are a couple who knows how to swing things around to neutral again, and once both of them have been heard, the balance of power is restored. A scene like that wouldn’t be possible in a film that centered primarily on the girls, and it’w why King Richard is likely the best version of this story, which admittedly concludes after Venus competes professionally against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. She comes out of the match stronger than she went in, which doesn’t necessarily mean she wins. In many ways, that’s how I feel about King Richard—you come out more knowledgeable than you went in, though that doesn’t always mean it’s great. But it certainly is memorable and effective, a lot like Richard Williams.

The film is now playing theatrically and streaming on HBO Max.

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