Sometimes you sit down to watch a new biopic with little to no knowledge of the true story about to unfold. Other times, though, you’re well aware of how it all turns out. A good film can’t be hurt by that foreknowledge, and happily King Richard is a very good film telling a story of determination and adversity with an ending you expect but will cheer for all the same. Venus Williams and Serena Williams are tennis superstars, legends with numerous accolades and achievements in the sport, but while they stand alone on the court, others had a hand in helping them get there.
Richard Williams (Will Smith) believes in his five daughters and wants more for them than their life in Compton suggests possible. Education and humility are priorities for all, but for young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), it’s a different game altogether — tennis. He’s written out a plan for the two that sees them achieving milestones in the sport, but several years in it still feels like a struggle. Neighborhood thugs threaten to interfere, Richard and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) are already stretched tight with multiple jobs, and he keeps hitting white brick walls when it comes to finding a proper coach to take the girls to the next level. Tennis, it seems, is a sport for white, middle/upper class youths, but Richard refuses to take that “truth” as fact.
King Richard is a biopic focused on one aspect of a man’s life, and while it teases and side steps some of his more complicated life choices and personality quirks, the film succeeds at painting a picture of a man who believes in his daughters’ futures. Some have complained (nonsensically) that Venus and Serena should have been the focus here — not only are their lives covered in great detail in numerous other places, but in a very clear way, the pair are every bit a part of this story. They’re also executive producers on the film, and it’s made very clear that the sisters have talent and determination all their own.
The film follows the family’s journey through a few pivotal years in the early 90s, and while Richard’s actions leave neighbors and tennis experts alike flustered and upset, we watch him walk a fragile line between confidence and ego. He dips on occasion into the latter, and the film doesn’t shy away from how unflattering it makes the man look. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin walk that line with him and portray Richard as a man focused on the future while conveniently ignoring his own past failings. He’s no untouchable hero, but flaws don’t prevent him from believing in his daughters. Happily, especially for fans of tennis films — there are too few and even fewer great ones — King Richard also sees them deliver a smartly crafted look at the sport through both its play and an acknowledgement of the hard work that goes into it.
His determination and iron-fisted doctrine feels at times overly strict and oblivious to the truth that Venus and Serena are just children, but dark turns among some of the sport’s young superstars at the time see him overcorrect. King Richard reveals an imperfect king, one who wants to enforce and abide by “the plan” but who is capable of flexibility when the situation demands it — or when he fears the alternative. Brandy is every bit the queen, and her own contributions are made clear and evident. Like Richard, she was also an athlete, and she contributes technique tips, parental love, and a healthy dollop of reason into both the conversation and their girls’ upbringing.
Ellis is terrifically warm and raw as Brandy, and she makes it clear that her faith and love for her children has the edge over what she feels she owes to Richard. Her trust that he feels the same and wants only what’s best for them is equally strong, and film title aside it’s made very clear that there are two rulers in this household. Sidney and Singleton are both breathes of fresh air revealing an off-the-court playfulness that exists right in line with their on-the-court determination. Brief turns by Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn as incredibly successful coaches who see the girls’ potentials also bring humor and personality to the film.
Smith’s turn as King Richard himself is something of a welcome return for a talent too often content popping with personality in bubblegum fare — not a knock as he’s a bright light in entertaining genre fare like Bad Boys for Life (2020) and Gemini Man (2019). Here he brings a real-life person to life, and while the expected physical quirks are present they never threaten to overcome the man’s character and humanity. You buy what Smith is selling and see Richard as a father whose belief in his own choices is powered in large ways by his belief in Venus and Serena.
The specifics of King Richard are about tennis, the Williams’ sisters, and Richard’s plan, but the themes are ones that every parent should be inspired and emboldened by. The family is one built on a thirst for education (in both higher learning and sports) and the reach for greatness, but humility and the need for simple fun are equally important. Are the details and family relationships here a bit rose-tinted at times? Most likely, but the message and truth shine through any of the bullshit. Believe in yourself, believe in your children, and fight for what you think is right — but all of that said, always defer to the queen.