Biopics can occasionally be divisive in their presentation of their subjects. If one leans too hard into realism but fudges details, the whole story can be treated as a pariah. On the same token, if you set up your rules to be magical, then you can play and have fun. Either way, there’s a certain expectation when watching a biopic and it’s a problem when the audience doesn’t know what the focus is from the jump. Ahead of watching the six-time Critics Choice nominated film King Richard, all I heard about Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is how little it delved into star athletes Venus and Serena Williams as they began their careers and, instead, opted to focus on their father. It was at that moment I began to worry about audiences and media literacy because Green’s film uses the nickname for Richard Williams as its title and both Venus and Serena are producers on the film, as is their sister Isha Price. Green’s film is unabashedly centered on Richard Williams and his drive to help his daughters fulfill their dreams of athletic success. Even when the film shifts around the halfway point to focus more on Venus’s early success, feeling more and more like a traditional sports film, it never loses its center: Richard, for better or worse. Viewed as a family drama, Green’s King Richard is an exemplary biopic led by award-worthy performances that show the good and the bad of a man who merely wanted the best life for his kids.
If you’d like to learn about King Richard without spoilers, please head directly to EoM senior contributor Hunter Heilman’s 2021 Film Fest 919 review. Moving forward, there may be specific discussion of film details.
Richard Williams (Will Smith) spends his nights working security and his days making sure his daughters get their homework done. In between, he’s either making sure daughters Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) practice tennis on a neighborhood court, is doing research on how to better their abilities, or is contacting coaches as a means of scouting. Both girls love tennis and have the skills to be great, Williams just needs the right person to take a chance on a family from Compton, California, (not exactly known for tennis) to help the girls get there. Upon making contact with Coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) in Florida, Richard sees the girls start to get the support they need, making the very first steps toward making the world remember their names.
I cannot for the life of me understand how someone can watch a film specifically titled King Richard and wonder why it’s about Richard Williams. Even if you didn’t know that the Williams family was involved in the production, including being on set to ensure as much accuracy as possible, I struggle to understand where the confusion comes from. As someone who doesn’t follow sports, even I’ve heard of Venus and Serena. I’ve heard of their sports successes, I’ve seen the way they’ve built public identities through good works and smart business. I’ve also seen the way the tennis community has treated them, requiring higher bars for them to clear over and again, despite being two of the best, if not the best, in their field. If one believes the press, the two women are also incredibly kind and grounded. If one believes this and trusts that having their names attached equates to quality, well then why were people so aggrieved? One might surmise that audiences had heard King Richard described as a Venus/Serena biopic and therefore had certain expectations set. However, once you start the film, you see that Green’s narrative perspective, driven by the script from Zach Baylin, is always Richard’s. In a way, I applaud not wanting to put even more dramatics or attention on either of the athletes, especially given the scrutiny they faced then and continue to face now. Also, it genuinely seems, from productions notes to cast Q&As, that the intent of the film is to explore the person who helped them get where they are. Unlike other sports films where the parents are typically constantly pushing, a driving force viewed as domineering or unrelenting, King Richard presents a parent who strives for pride in work, humility in success, and having fun. The script makes a point to show Richard listening to the games quietly versus watching and shouting. He trusts the girls to know their limits, to know their craft. He supports them by reminding them to have fun, while other parents seem only focused on whether their child wins or loses. He also tries (sometimes failing) to defer to them, enabling them to make their own choices. We see this most of all in the gamble with the Nike sponsorship proposal. Richard makes his case as to why they shouldn’t, but leaves it up to Venus as to whether they agree or not. He’ll tell the coaches that he knows best, even going so far as to try to coach over them during practice, but he’ll listen to his daughters when they speak. The man isn’t perfect and the script never shies away from his mistakes, his own pride, and his own ambition, but at no point are any of his kids treated as less than he, as less than any other sibling, or as less important than the whole. “All of us or none of us” isn’t just a thing to be bartered when Macci wants to sign both girls, it’s a creed.
For all of its strengths, where I find King Richard a little lacking is how little we know about Richard beyond the scope of this period. As someone who doesn’t follow sports, I’m not privy to the kind of inside baseball that fans of the Williams’s might be. There’s one scene, well into the film, when Aunjanue Ellis’s Oracene Williams and Richard get into a fight regarding how he handled a situation. Ellis brings a strong presence to the film as the mother of the girls, an equal partner in their endeavor to see Venus and Serena succeed, just with different responsibilities. Theirs is a fight couples with differing familial duties might have, but she brings up how this isn’t his first family, how he behaved with children from his past family, and other things that, up until this moment, we had no knowledge of. From a biopic perspective, it makes sense to ensure that we, the audience, learn about as much of the complexity of a person (the subject) as we can within the time frame, but it’s executed here with such off-handedness that it makes me wonder why it was brought up if it’s never going to be explored. This new information doesn’t change how we view Richard with his kids. If the purpose of mentioning how he ignored and sent away a children who appeared at his door is to make us think he’s using Venus and Serena for his own gain, there’s little else in the script which would support that. Do we see Richard enjoying the trappings of prestige that he earns? Yes, but it’s not the kind of abuse which warrants concern or implies overreach.
If you enjoyed King Richard, then you’ll delight in having close to 25 minutes of special features to explore the film. There’s a bit of overlap material regarding the thoughts and impressions of the cast on their real-life counterparts or how members of the Williams family felt about the casting between the three featurettes, but the bulk of the material is unique enough to not feel overly redundant. What I found most fascinating out of all the included material is how the film made the tennis look as real as they do. Credit to Sidney and Singleton on their work creating the presence of their real-life counterparts, both on the court and off, but it was cool to learn that they had tennis doubles for the matches. This meant that they had two body doubles to play the sport with dots on their faces for digital face replacement, leaving only the facial work for the actors. Frankly, I never would’ve guessed this as the use of CG is so seamless that the illusion of skill on the part of Sidney and Singleton is perfect. Given that Will Smith is a producer on the film, as well as playing the titular role, it’s not a surprise that there’s a featurette devoted just to him. What’s neat about this is finding out how little prosthetics and make-up he used, preferring to channel the energy of Richard rather than try to mimic him. There’s a fine line between caricature and honesty in a biopic and, here, the choice to convey energy over physical accuracy works wonders.
The truth is, of course, a matter of perspective. If you have five people witness something and ask each of them what happened, you’ll get five different answers. That this film was signed off on by Richard’s family implies that the story is close enough to the truth to be either as honest as it can or as kind to everyone else. King Richard so obviously revers its subject, but doesn’t place him on a pedestal. Instead, it treats him and all within the tale as human. This is where Green’s film truly becomes powerful. Rather than being the average sports film, it focuses on the humanity of who they are, allowing us to connect with people, not stars, in the pursuit of their dreams.
King Richard 4K UHD combo pack and Blu-ray Special Features:
- Following the Plan – The Making of King Richard (9:05)
- Becoming Richard (6:24)
- Champions on Screen (5:49)
- Two (2) Deleted Scenes (3:02)
King Richard DVD Special Feature:
- Following the Plan – The Making of King Richard (9:05)
Available on digital January 4th, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD February 8th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official King Richard website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.