Release Date – 19th November 2021, Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 24 minutes, Director – Reinaldo Marcus Green
Richard Williams (Will Smith) does everything he can to help train his daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), become the most successful tennis stars in the world, despite anything, and everything, that might stand in his and their way.
One of the questions that may arise about this biopic about the rise of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams is why does it focus on their father? Perhaps that’s because King Richard isn’t your standard sports biopic, or really a biopic at all. It’s about one specific time in the life of the pair, as their careers appear to finally be properly taking off. It’s just as their father planned in the 78 page plan he wrote for their whole career before they were even born. The film follows him passionately trying to see them succeed, no matter what stands in their way. “This would ain’t never had no respect for Richard Williams” he tells them in the packed family van “but they gonna respect y’all”.
Will Smith is great in the central role and with his standard brand of charisma, mixed with the dramatic hits we know he can deal, makes for an engaging figure. One striving and fighting for his family to make their lives the best they can possibly be, trying to prove those who attack him late at night on the nearby public tennis courts wrong. While those around him, from neighbours to famous tennis coaches, doubt his ability as both a father and a coach the abilities of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) soon turn them quiet and gain high-attention. Moving them from the streets of Compton to the estates of sunny Florida where fortune comes ever closer, and barriers of all kinds begin to fall down around them thanks in part to the persistence of their father – his high demands causing bafflement amongst coaches, managers and many other industry figures around him.
Yet, amongst the more serious points that the film makes – including just how much the rise of Venus and Serena means in terms of representation of black players in what is shown to be a sport almost exclusive and only accessible to white people – there’s plenty of heart emitted in the family core. The unexpected needle drop of Bananarama’s Cool Summer sets the tone of one scene to later lead into a family road-trip singalong of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler – an instant joy creator if ever there was one. It’s joy that begins to be toned down as the girls begin to enter the world of professional training with Jon Bernthal’s Rich Macci. He’s worked in the industry for a long time and knows the best, and often only, ways for a player to reach the heights that Richard has in his eyes. However, the two somewhat clash when father begins to claim he knows best in regards to this and won’t have his daughters play in junior matches and tournaments. As the film begins to feel more like a traditional sports biopic, somewhere in the vein of Le Mans ’66/ Ford Vs Ferrari – perhaps pushed by Bernthal’s presence – you begin to question whether the passionate figure of Richard really knows what he’s talking about.
It’s perhaps in this second half, where relationships with coaches and training become more of a focus and perhaps take centre-stage, where the more traditional feel brings a new overall tone to the film. It’s certainly not vastly different and you’re still able to remain in the piece, but the general feeling is one of traditional familiarity. What helps it along, and perhaps helps keep you truly situated in the unfolding events that build up to the tennis match finale – which is played out rather well and begins to bring you back to the state you were in before the slight shift – is Smith’s performance. There’s been plenty of awards season discussion around his role in this film, and it’s very likely that he’ll get a nod, and you can understand those who say that he may very well win. It’s certainly his best performance in years, thanks to the laidback nature that he gives Richard’s exterior, yet the consistent concentration, worry and hope that lies within him for the future of his daughters. It’s very likely him who stops the film from feeling as much like a traditional sports film and biopic as it could.
Yet, the feeling of a father trying his best to push his kids is still there. Needing to be reminded not to go too far, while some wish that he would go further when it comes to sponsorship deals, or simply just listen to others. While his three half-daughters don’t get a great deal to do there’s at least time for his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) to shine in a particularly effective scene in the later stages of the piece. It’s another reminder of the family unit and feeling that runs throughout the film and acts perhaps as the biggest push for Richard, amongst everything else and the more dramatic tones. It adds an extra layer to the tennis matches that he watches with pride as his daughters, in the views of the frequent players and coaches in the junior tournaments, come from nowhere and go from strength to strength and win to win. It’s what largely sets the film aside from a number of sports biopics, and, alongside Smith’s engaging and connecting central performance, stops it from wholly feeling like one too.
While it might slip into the realms of a more traditional sports biopic as it focuses more on training, Will Smith’s performance in King Richard keeps the film’s passion, spirit and drama afloat. Reminding us of the striving father trying to see his daughters succeed in both tennis and breaking down barriers, even if to the frustration of others who he may see as such barriers.