Let me begin this review with a dose of unvarnished honesty: I’ve never much liked tennis. In my defense, I grew up in a small town where the three main sports were football, cow-tipping, and silent judgment. So, tennis is largely a foreign enterprise consisting of weird scorekeeping, unnatural grunting, and matches that go on for hours. That means I’ll have to crank out this review of King Richard based on its cinematic merit, combined with my vague knowledge of Venus and Serena Williams as a cultural force. Basically, you’re gonna have to take this beautiful review with a healthy grain of salt.
King Richard begins in Compton, circa 1991. Richard Williams (Will Smith) is a domineering father who relentlessly prepares his five daughters for a better life beyond the ghetto. His plans are particularly ambitious for Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), who display prodigal abilities on the tennis court. When Richard attempts to gain entrée for the girls on the amateur circuit, he finds the going especially tough. Coaches and trainers politely repeatedly brush him off. Even when he does land an elite mentor (Tony Goldwyn) for Venus and Serena, Richard often sabotages the situation by overstepping his bounds and offering advice that contradicts the coach.
This situation repeats itself throughout the film: As the girls continue to grow in skill and reputation, Richard often rules with an uneasy combination of instinct and insecurity. His overwhelming personality threatens to hinder their success more than help it. Richard ends up alienating coaches and frightening members of the press.
Some of that changes when the family meets a coach with enough patience and farsight to endure Richard’s inevitable mood swings. Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) is amiable, charismatic, and a powerful influence in the tennis world. He agrees to relocate the entire family to Florida, and train both girls for professional tennis. Rick and Richard form a volatile alliance, with the former itching to unleash Venus and Serena onto an unsuspecting world, while the latter grows increasingly overprotective of the potential racism the girls might face in a historically white sport.
Make no mistake: King Richard walks the path of a very conventional sports biopic. The film begins with the Williamses living in obscurity, and they must struggle with adversity on the daunting journey to fortune and glory. Despite its quirk of viewing the ascent of Venus and Serena through the eyes of their eccentric, temperamental father, this is a film formula you’ve seen in many other movies.
With that said, King Richard still works pretty well, and a lot of that is due to the lead performances. Smith plays Richard as a difficult and bull-headed individual whose tunnel-visioned tenacity turns out to be his biggest strength and weakness. Aunjanue Ellis gives Brandy Williams the force of personality to counter her husband’s erratic behavior. The film makes a convincing case that Brandy’s quiet resolve had as much to do with the girls’ success as Richard’s terse outspokenness. Sidney and Singleton do an excellent job as Venus and Serena, who still project innocence and wonder, despite their incredible talent. Bernthal is also a standout, playing Macci as a decent man who grows increasingly exasperated with Richard’s grandstanding.
Just how sanitized is this biopic? Well, Venus and Serena are executive producers, so probably a lot. At the very least, it’s probably only as raw and unflinching as they’ll allow it to be. Still, I suspect the spirit of King Richard is true to life. When the girls transform from Compton teenagers to global phenomena, it feels earned. There’s a good chance you’ll be moved by the experience. In fact, my aloof feelings on tennis might make me your perfect barometer for this film: Despite my lack of knowledge or passion for the subject, this story kept me involved from start to finish. Judged solely on its filmic merit, King Richard may not be great, or revolutionary, but it’s still a damn good movie.
145 min. PG-13. On Demand.