There is perhaps no last name in the tennis world more infamous than “Williams” – the surname of not just one but two of the sport’s most decorated and well-known stars. With a combined total of 122 women’s singles titles, 30 grand slam singles titles, two Olympic gold medals, and countless doubles accolades, the Williams sisters are a legendary force to be reckoned with. But as King Richard sets out to prove – so too was their father, Richard Williams. And though the film rarely attempts to move beyond the scope of a standard sports biopic, a magnetic performance from a nearly unrecognizable Will Smith drives King Richard towards the gold.
Starring Will Smith and Saniyya Sidney, King Richard follow the ambitious, smooth-talking Richard Williams (Smith) who made it his life’s mission to make his daughters Venus and Serena into tennis stars after learning about how lucrative the sport was for A-list athletes. Though at the time Black women in tennis were virtually unheard of, and the family’s humble Compton roots meant finding the proper equipment and coaches to get the girls into the upper echelon of the pricy sport was near-impossible, Richard’s hustle (and his daughters’ immense talent) eventually skyrockets them to the sports legends we know them as today.
As the title implies, King Richard (despite featuring his much more famous daughters Venus and Serena) is, at its core a film about Richard Williams himself – meaning the movie lives or dies by the merits of its leading man and whether or not he’s able to fill Richard’s tennis shoes and short-shorts. Luckily for King Richard, though, Will Smith is more than up for the task and brings a vivacity, wit, and scrappiness to the role of Richard that both makes him nearly unrecognizable from the smooth mega-star we know him as, and the perfect person to bring Richard (who was a borderline celebrity in his own right) to life.
Richard Williams (though just how honest and harsh the film is towards him may be up for debate, given that it’s produced by Venus and Serena) is a fascinating figure as the film presents him, and an unlikely sort of protagonist – with his heavy accent, comically tight shorts, and unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer, he’s the sort of character who might traditionally feature as comic relief or second fiddle in any other biopic. But here, his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities are put front and center: how he printed off pamphlets with Venus and Serena’s stats, made sizzle reels of their matches and sent them to prospective coaches, and had a habit of traipsing into high-brow tennis clubs to sweet-talk pros into coaching his daughters.
Though his antics at times walk the line between ‘determined, driven father’ and ‘tennis-obsessed maniac’, there’s a certain charm in his dedication that always wins over both the characters of King Richard and the audience – what he’s doing is certainly outlandish, but he’s doing it to give his daughters the best tennis education they can get. As Richard, Smith similarly manages to walk the line between eccentric smooth-talker and dedicated father: he delivers cheeky, accent-laden one-liners just as effortlessly as he carries the heavier emotional beats, especially when playing opposite wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis) and Saniyya Sidney’s Venus.
Speaking of Venus, though their records today would tout Serena as the more prolific sister, it’s Venus whose early tennis career is the subject of King Richard and their father’s early focus: he uproots their entire family to Florida so she can train under Rick Macci (a mustachioed and ever-endearing Jon Bernthal), and braves beatings from local thugs so that Venus can continue to train at the tennis court. Though acting opposite the likes of Will Smith (and Will Smith in top form, no less) is no doubt an intimidating challenge for a young actress, 15-year-old Sidney shines as Venus – bringing a quiet strength and determination that pairs beautifully against her father’s more outspoken tendencies.
The aforementioned Aunjanue Ellis as Richard’s wife Brandi also commands attention whenever she’s onscreen (which is far too little, if you ask us): Brandi, though not as heavily involved in her daughters’ tennis careers as her husband, still boasts an unwavering ‘momma bear’ attitude towards her daughters: ready and willing to go toe to toe with anyone from overbearing neighbors to her husband in defense of her children. While at times we get the feeling that their family dynamics and marital issues may have been downplayed for the sake of presenting Richard in a positive light, Ellis still functions as a compelling and necessary foil to Richard and his high-flying ways.
King Richard, with its witty script, a lively soundtrack, and visual flair (courtesy of Robert Elswit) is more than memorable as far as sports biopics go. It is moving beyond standard genre fare thanks to Will Smith’s irrefutable performance and a larger-than-life central character whose antics would seem too far-fetched to believe if some of them hadn’t been televised. King Richard is just like its leading man: scrappy, smooth-talking, and all too good at getting you to stand up and cheer for the miraculous Williams sisters.