It may seem strange that a film centered around the early careers of Venus and Serena Williams doesn’t feature the central girls in the spotlight. The focus instead shifts to their father, Richard Williams. That may seem strange until you consider his legacy. Those early days for Venus and Serena seem to mostly just be embracing the teachings of their father. Their father himself turned out to be a very complicated figure.
Portrayed by Will Smith in one of his finest roles to date, Richard is established as a dedicated man with eyes constantly on the future. There doesn’t seem to be a moment he wastes on his daughters to ensure they’ll grow up to be successes, destined to graduate out of Compton. He has taken a particular interest in Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) by being their entire support system for tennis. He studies up on the sport, the competition, the business, and athletic strategy. He’s their coach, agent, and teacher, striving to get them the training and insight required to go far. It’s a noble effort but also his central character flaw.
Richard is someone who wants the best but also fears the worst. One obstacle for his daughters is the influence of gangs in his neighborhood, becoming a distraction at the tennis courts. Though Richard turns the other cheek, the gears in his mind grind as he nearly commits murder to ensure the safety of his family. He also fears the presence of police being called upon by nosy neighbors, leading to one of Smith’s many for-your-consideration monologues.
With Richard as the centerpiece, there’s a handful of great scenes depending on who he’s interacting with. His wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) finds herself bitter about Richard’s decisions that he makes on his own. He rarely consults her about issues of choosing a contract or breaking bad news. Such deception and avoidance strain their marriage, boiling brilliantly as the careers of their daughters ascend.
Another interesting character he interacts with is the coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). Though Rick has a lot to offer, Richard peers through that smile and tries to one-up the coach by taking further control over the careers of his daughters. Just when Rick slides a good contract towards him, Richard will slide him back a better deal. Any deal that is struck with the father proves to be a great conflict of words and bartering. It almost comes off as expected during one of the more hilarious exchanges where Richard not only turns down an offer from some low-key racists but ends the discussion with an audible fart.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green approaches this story with brisk pacing that makes 2.5 hours just fly by. Scenes linger just long enough before we’re jumping into the next tennis match or the next meeting. The tennis scenes carry great energy and tension, especially for the big bout as Venus plays to the grandest of crowds. The film is almost too fast as it seems to zoom quickly past scenes that may be more intriguing to explore. The Rodney King beating is on television during this time and Richard and Brandy merely watch from a distance with quiet concern. Another bit of news finds Richard uneasy when discovering one of Rick’s students had a drug problem. The concerns of a father for the well-being of his daughters feel just as compelling as his desire to see them as tennis pros.
The actors are all in top form here. Aunjanue Ellis commands her scenes with love and fury, showing affection for her daughters and righteous sternness with her husband. Bernthal always brings some easy exuberance to his roles and this may be one of his finest supporting performances, playing a dedicated teacher that grows frustrated when sensing his grip may be loosening.
Of course, the grandest highlight is Will Smith. He gives Richard a fully-realized personality that has more than just a calculative side. Smith’s ease with humor leads to him being surprisingly retrained to almost dead-pan antics where he finds just the right punchline to end a scene. After a dramatic scene where he lets Venus turn down a million-dollar deal with Nike, Richard cuts the tension by suggesting the buffet. There’s a rainbow of emotions on display here and, while most of them feel contained in shots fit for the Oscars, they’re certainly worthy of the drama that tapdances on the verge of being too melodramatic.
King Richard may be little more than a platform for Will Smith’s acting talent but there’s enough strong direction and acting to warrant such a film. As far as sports dramas go, this picture manages to find the moments that matter most and pump them up with some fine performances that are always engaging. There’s sure to be some questioning of accuracies and portrayals but, in terms of being entertaining, it’s hard not to be engrossed in this attention-grabbing picture. It’s worth a watch for the acting alone and is most likely going to be sought on that merit. In that respect, King Richard comes exactly as advertised.