The triumphant story of two of the most famous athletes the world has ever known. Executive produced by both Williams sisters, it’s a biopic of their rise from humble upbringings in Compton, California to owning the whitest sport in the world of Tennis. However, it’s all framed through their guiding light and the ultimate cheerleader, their complex and loving father Richard Williams – aka King Richard.
The framing device of using the father tells a much richer, full-bodied story, allowing for a mature discussion around their success and showing the sacrifices to get them there. And Richard’s drive and determination are remarkable – that level of confidence in his daughter’s skills can only be handed down from on high, that a higher being indoctrinated this dream of rising to the top of the tennis world inside him. The confidence transfers over to his girls and no obstacle is big enough to distract them from their ultimate destiny. It’s surreal to see a father with a detailed plan of a child’s path, even before their birth, come to fruition.
Will Smith at his best
Will Smith, as Richard Williams, captures the spirit of the man as a father. A man who was layered with trauma through his upbringing, but carries those lessons he learned into the daughter’s journey, doing everything humanly possible to protect them – Smith doesn’t shy away from his faults, his anger, or the misunderstood nature of Richard as a human being. He portrays Richard as a man who values truth above all else, and his honesty puts others on guard, as he never plays the game the way people in the tennis world expect it to be played. He’s brazen with people, but under his exterior is a man afraid of failure but resolute in his vision for his girls. We see this in his unbending protection, despite making others deeply uncomfortable, of his girls.
Furthermore, it’s a strong cast. The performances are the high point of the film. Aunjanue Ellis as Queen Williams (or Brandi Williams) adds an extra layer of emotional weight and acts openly with Richard, understanding the man’s obsession. It’s rare to see people with such deep-seated faith in one another. Ellis conveys that trust in her performance and dynamic with Richard. The two girls portraying the Williams sisters, Saniyya Sidney (Venus) and Demi Singleton (Serena), don’t carry as much of the emotional weight, but they do get lost into the larger-than-life characters, showing their love and adoration for one another. The impressions are fully immersive, especially Will Smith with the lisp and tone, as his performance is transformative.
The Portrait of King Richard
As for the script, it’s not hyper-focused on the sport, avoiding some of the worst sports tropes in film. It’s a portrait of a man, and a complex one. It’s rangy in terms of the emotions, showing this seemingly simple person in Richard as someone with a full capacity for all the emotional complexity that comes with becoming a figure in the world. Early on in these girls’ lives, Richard and Bondi shoulder all the burden, giving these girls the best chance at success and not only in terms of tennis. Richard makes maddening decisions, but he gives the audience a reason to cheer outside the obvious. It displays the controlling side of Richard, but also the unending love they all shared.
The one criticism would be the editing and length. The nearly 150-minute runtime lets the script drift a bit and loses some of that character focus. It lingers on certain story beats that could’ve been cut out – especially in the final few acts of the film when Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) gets introduced. I loved Bernthal’s performance, but the script gets stagnant and a bit repetitive in that section. The film didn’t feel long for the actual length, but it could’ve been condensed down and still experienced the same emotional connection.
In closing, King Richard will serve as one of the greatest sports biopics of all time. It’s not a subgenre flooded with strong character pieces, making this film stand out. Will Smith deserves all the praise and gets the best out of a well-written character. Above all else, it’s truly a remarkable story that feels honest with the Williams sisters involved.