Film Review – King Richard
King Richard (2021) tells the story of Richard Williams, the ambitious father and trainer of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. I was a little perplexed with the route director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin decided to take here. It’s no question that Richard played a substantial role in ushering the sisters to superstardom, but they were the ones that put in the work. Venus and Serena woke up early every day, practiced for hours, and shot up the tennis hierarchy as teenagers. They were two black girls who took over a sport that was predominantly white. The fact that they are relegated to supporting roles is strange.
Another question: how true to life is this? Will Smith delivers an excellent performance as Williams, but it should also be noted that he, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and the Williams sisters are all producers on this project. This knowledge was stuck in the back of my mind while watching the film. I began to wonder if Williams is painted a bit too positively. Yes, there are moments of darkness, where his insistence on absolute control comes back to bite him, but he is never crosses the line. Williams has a car salesman persona about him, in the way he will talk and talk until he gets what he wants. How often would you believe a parent if they told you they had not one but two Michael Jordans in their household? And yet Williams is always proven right. We learn that Venus and Serena’s success was part of Richard’s carefully crafted plan. Of course, that plan is never explained to us to begin with.
But the biopic works because of the strength of the acting. We sometimes forget that Smith – beyond being a hyper charismatic musician, movie star, and now an online personality – is also one hell of an actor. Here we see him stripping away the sleek façade, delivering one of his best performances. His most powerful moments aren’t when he tries to convince others to believe in the girls or when he gives a rousing speech, but in quiet scenes where his face does all the talking. The way he sits nervously during big matches, or how he embraces his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) in a moment of weakness. These are the times where Smith is operating in full flight.
Although the story is about tennis, the tennis scenes are the least interesting bits. Green’s direction, Robert Elswit’s cinematography, and Pamela Martin’s editing structure the matches simply and economically, opting for wide angle shots to showcase the athleticism of the performers. The better sequences happen between those scenes, with Richard’s iron will facing up against the tennis establishment. Pulling the girls out of the juniors tour, skipping practice days to go to Disney World, and refusing sponsorship all fly in the face of what is normally done. Rick Macci (a very funny Jon Bernthal) was brought on to be the girls’ couch, and his exasperation over everything Richard does almost hits a boiling point.
Green is very good at highlighting the reasons for Williams’ protectiveness. He focuses on Williams’ gaze, always being perceptive about what is happening around him and using that as his guide to parenting. Growing up in a tough Compton neighborhood, with local gang members everywhere, Williams’ desire to get out borders on obsession. But the motivation that made him push the girls to be great also added a sense of distrust. Seeing how early success can put an enormous pressure on young people, Williams made it a point to have the girls live as normal a life as possible – getting an education, going out, having fun, and not stressing so much over tennis became as important to him as training.
The supporting characters are as vital a component as Richard himself. As Oracene, Aunjanue Ellis goes toe to toe with Smith, providing an equally strong character. Oracene may not be larger than life like her husband, but she is as committed to helping the family and is arguably the stronger of the two. Where Richard is allowed to venture out, scheme, and take chances, Oracene holds everything together by working and earning money to keep the family afloat. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton should also be commended for their work as Venus and Serena, respectively. While they may not have as much screen time as the adult actors, they make the most it, giving the Williams sisters a down to earth vibrancy. At the time, Venus was the star of the two. Serena – who would one day be considered the greatest tennis player regardless of gender – had to sit back and wait for her opportunity to come later.
In terms of a feel-good biopic, King Richard meets many of the requirements. It’s led by believable performances and efficient storytelling. The only nagging feeling I have centers on Smith and Williams’ involvement with the production. How much say did they have in telling this story? How much of their input affected the way characters were depicted? Would this have been better if made from an outsider’s perspective? Did the final product reflect what really happened, or was it part of the master plan also?