To be completely honest with you, I thought Will Smith was doing a period piece where he would play King Richard I in what I thought was one of the more daring pieces of casting I had heard about in a while. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised to find out “Richard” was in reference to Richard Williams, the tirelessly dedicated father of Venus and Serena Williams, whose skyrocket to tennis stardom started with their father’s careful planning and training. Sure, it’s not very daring, and boy oh boy am I tired of studio biopics, but I can’t really deny the real wonder of the story of the Williams sisters and just how much was done with the help and dedication of their father. And I get to eat my words for once, because despite ticking all the major biopic boxes, King Richard shines thanks to its good heart and surprisingly unpolished nature.
Richard Williams (Will Smith) is a night security guard who makes enough with his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), to furnish a humble, but comfortable life in Compton, California, with his five daughters, Tunde (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew), Isha (Danielle Lawson), Lyndrea (Layla Crawford), and his two youngest: Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Richard, having written a plan for both Venus and Serena’s tennis careers before they were even born, pushes the girls hard to be the best. Securing coaches and scouts for the girls’ careers, despite not “fitting the bill” of a “typical tennis player,” a.k.a. not growing up in an all-white country club with direct access to the resources needed to succeed within the system, Richard’s intentions are questioned when he sticks to his plan, eschewing rigid tradition within perhaps one of the most traditional sports in the world.
King Richard succeeds first, foremost, and most importantly, in Will Smith’s performance in the eponymous role. Smith, a mega-star if there ever was one, has a tendency to play similar characters with similar personalities in many of his films of late, and that certainly pays the bills, but King Richard was the first time in a very long time where I didn’t see Smith in the role at all. I’m typically very hyper-aware that I’m watching Smith acting in whatever he’s in, but here, he simply disappears into the role. It’s not a flashy or grandiose performance, he isn’t out here making intense physical transformations or pushing himself to the limit with method acting, but simply disappears into an earnest, sometimes incredibly frustrating, but never malicious, role. That’s almost more impressive than something loud, bombastic and “different” we would expect from Smith at this point in his career.
But Smith is not the only major player here in King Richard, despite the film being named after him. In fact, most everyone pulls their weight and doesn’t find themselves steamrolled by Smith going big. Perhaps the most impressive performance comes from Aunjanue Ellis, whose chemistry with Smith, both positive and negative, cannot be overstated. Again, this is not a bombastic performance, but rather one that relies heavily on the subtlety granted to the character in both Zach Baylin’s screenplay, as well as Ellis’s innate talent itself. Not to mention both of the talents of Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney, particularly, who not only uncannily look the part of both Serena and Venus, but portray their characteristic unwavering strength and confidence, evidence of how Richard raised these girls to know they are the best, and to actually believe it.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green plays it generally pretty close to the chest in structuring the film, following the girls from 1991 to 1994 as Venus begins her professional career at age 14. It’s a glossy, attractive film that doesn’t really go big in most of the film, until the major tennis scenes take place. Green approaches the scenes with a level of alacrity that befits the biggest, most intense of action thrillers. One of the major issues with so many biopics is that since it’s based upon historical events, it often robs the film of any real suspense in the audience guessing where things might go next. While those with a knowledge of the history of the Williams sisters will have an idea of its trajectory, it’s graciously pulled back by Green, and more particularly, editor Pamela Martin’s ability to create tension in the fast-paced, but clearly captured, games of tennis displayed here.
And sure, some of King Richard is a bit heavy-handed, if only to make up for the expected audience of young athletes who will be a target demographic at play here, but there’s never a moment where I felt like anything was watered down for the sake of playing down the audience’s intelligence. There are some of the emotional beats that we can come to expect from films such as this, but barely any of them feel undeserved (aside from a particularly clunky series of scenes in the first act of the film regarding the oldest daughter, Tunde, attracting some undue attention from members of a local gang). Everything is structured and spread out enough to where the 138-minute runtime, which can feel a bit arduous, particularly to someone like me who is very tired of biopics, feels like a tight 90-minute breeze. That’s good editing.
I really hate how much I fell victim to the charms of King Richard in the same way I hate falling to the charms of a Marvel movie at any given point. I dislike giving into a sub-genre of films that are beginning to feel more and more manufactured and synthetic by the day, but King Richard is the surprising organic winner in a sea of rotting, preservative filled counterparts. Perhaps this came from a seemingly wrong view of Smith as a safe Hollywood choice for any studio’s most manufactured of films, but there’s a care and restraint that comes from Smith in this role that both impresses in the work put into it, while also leaving a ton of breathing room for his supporting cast to have their moments to shine in equal measure. And at the end of it all, biopics can work for truly unique stories of amazing people overcoming the odds, and this look inside the man behind two of the greatest athletes of all time is a refreshingly honest, non-self-aggrandizing piece of feel good cinema that also fully doesn’t surprise me that it tied with C’mon C’mon for the Audience Award at Film Fest 919. It just makes sense.
In theaters and streaming exclusively on HBO Max‘s Ad-Free Plan for 31 days November 19th, 2021.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.