King Richard, 2021.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Jon Bernthal.
The story of the Williams sisters, and the father who helped to position them for tennis superstardom.
Sporting underdog stories are ten a penny, but they seldom come as enormous as the tale of the Williams sisters – probably the two greatest female tennis players of all time. They have won 30 Grand Slam singles titles and 14 doubles titles between them, with both still going strong in the sport in their 40s. King Richard follows their road to early success in the 1990s and, particularly, the way their father shaped their training and guided their careers from the streets of Compton to the glamorous venues of elite sport. “When I grew up, tennis was not a game people played,” says the opening voice-over, adding: “We were too busy running from the Klan.”
Will Smith is terrific as Richard Williams, combining disarming politeness with an undercurrent of pure confidence. He spends his days coaching his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), and his nights working gruelling shifts as a security guard. Meanwhile, he’s trying to woo high-profile tennis coaches to take his daughters on and turn them into the champions he knows they will become.
Wisely, King Richard has at its core a complete understanding of what makes Smith such a brilliant movie star. Zach Baylin’s script gives Richard a constant supply of terrific comic moments, but there’s also plenty of room for him to shift gears nimbly into high emotion. A rain-drenched practice session gives way to a scene in which Richard is forced to defend his training regime after the police are called. Smith’s shuddering, teary-eyed intensity is delightful, and is given all the more power as a result of the weird, artificially chirpy façade Richard maintains elsewhere, whether coaching children or negotiating a multi-million-dollar brand deal. A scene in which he forces the family to watch Cinderella in order to teach a lesson about humbleness brilliantly walks the line between being dramatic and daft.
But Smith is far from the only excellent performer in this cast. Aunjanue Ellis is something of an unsung hero as Richard’s wife, Brandy, delivering a turn balancing passion, control, rage and the white-hot love she feels for her family. Far more than just the “supportive wife” trope, she’s a layered character in her own right and Ellis deserves to be in the frame for awards. Saniyya Sidney is also fantastic as Venus, buffeted between the rising expectations of the tennis community, her own sporting ambition and the loyalty she feels towards the father who has been with her every step of the way. Jon Bernthal also deserves plaudits for his broad, comedic turn as famous tennis coach Rick Macci.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green balances the tone elegantly, with the sort of frothy lightness you’d expect from a prestige sporting biopic. Smartly, the movie positions race as a factor which isn’t necessarily central to everything that happens, but is always there as a backdrop to everything these characters are able to achieve and everything that’s holding them back. The camera lingers on the whiteness of tennis club clientele and foregrounds a news report on the 1991 attack on Rodney King by cops which triggered the LA riots. “At least they got it on tape this time,” says one character in a chilling nod to the lack of progress in the subsequent two decades.
But the film does occasionally struggle around the portrayal of its central character, suffering from a common biopic problem. It’s difficult for the movie to ever criticise Richard’s approach, because we know the Williams sisters will become two of the most famous and successful people in the history of competitive sport. Even when he makes decisions which seem destined to scupper his daughters’ careers, there’s little tension in the scenes that follow. In the end, it turns out better than even Richard could’ve imagined, and the audience is always aware of this.
None of that, though, gets in the way of the success of King Richard. It’s a crowd-pleasing biopic that seldom attempts to break new ground, but does a stellar job of telling the story of two incredible female sports stars and their relationship with their father. Smith will get the awards attention and the plaudits, deservedly, but the film around him shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle either. It goes down every bit as nicely as strawberries and cream on Centre Court.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.