Even if you don’t really follow the world of tennis, you would have to live under a rock if you haven’t heard of Venus and Serena Williams. I have to admit I didn’t know much about their upbringing so when I saw the film was about their father, I was intrigued. Will Smith plays the title role, Richard Williams, a determined father of five girls living in Compton, CA. Yep, they’re straight out of Compton! (Sorry I couldn’t resist!)
The 53-year-old Smith’s is made up to look much older with grizzly beard sporting short shorts and speaking with a thick Southern drawl. The movie poster of him pushing a grocery cart with Venus & Serena + a bunch of tennis balls is perhaps the most evocative image of the year. It gets me teary eyed watching Richard collects discarded tennis balls from various country clubs. Richard’s method to get his daughters proper training is unconventional but that persistence is so inspiring. Armed with a 85-page plan, he’d visit affluent country clubs in upscale neighborhoods like Beverly Hills to convince rich members to invest in his daughters. He remains undeterred when one white guy after another brush him off. He firmly believes they will one day become tennis stars that you could tell he actually feels sorry for those naysayers for missing out on this golden opportunity.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green keeps the pace lively and the script by Zach Baylin peppers the film with familial warmth & humor. But they also doesn’t shy away from the economic struggles raising five kids with both parents working, Richard works nights as a security guard and his wife works as a nurse. Not to mention the racial injustice that Richard often face, from past trauma with the police and KKK to getting beaten up by local thugs when he’s training his kids in a run-down tennis court. There is one particularly suspenseful moment when Richard sets out to avenge one of those gang members with a gun in hand.
The performances are the highlights in King Richard. Will Smith gives his best performance in years where he practically becomes the character he’s playing. I said almost as there are a few moments where the actor’s exuberant persona comes out, but Smith is so infectiously charming that I don’t mind.
As good as Smith is though, Aunjanue Ellis is equally powerful as Venus & Serena’s mother/coach Oracene Price. She’s got such a strong screen presence and all her scenes are wonderful to watch. I especially love the part when she confronts a neighbor who unrightfully called Child Protection Services on them for making the girls train in the rain. The film’s title refers to a singular person who’s responsible for two of the world’s best tennis stars, but obviously it takes two to raise a family of champions. Price also coached Serena when Richard was busy training Venus, as well as puts up with Richard’s less than less than savory side involving his past relationships. I appreciate that the filmmakers refrain from portraying Richard as a patron saint as it wouldn’t be accurate, but despite his flaws as a man, this film’s focus is to highlight his undeniable impact to his two daughters’ careers.
Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena are both outstanding here and even more impressive that they also perform all the tennis playing scenes! Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal have memorable turns as Venus’ coaches, Paul Cohen and Rick Macci, respectively. There’s even a funny scene when Richard and his two girls pays him a visit as he was coaching Pete Sampras and John McEnroe. Bernthal is quite a scene stealer here, sporting a bowl haircut, his performance is so unlike the typical tough-guy persona he’s done many times before. It cements my opinion that he’s the one of the best character actors working today.
Green did a great job filming the dynamic tennis action scenes, even capturing Venus’ famous power serve. There are some beautiful drone shots of the matches as well. But one of the most memorable scenes to me is not on the tennis court, but in their hotel room when a brash Nike exec offers Venus a “take-it-or-leave-it” deal of $3 million. It may seem like a lot of money but Richard had the vision that her daughter is worth more. The closing credits text reveals he was right as she later signed with Reebok for four times that amount. I also appreciate the quieter scenes such as a mother braiding her daughter’s hair or the family watching a movie together which I find really moving.
Overall this is a rousing, uplifting biopic with a terrific script and spot-on performances. It was emotionally involving from start to finish and I’m glad I got to know a bit more about the journey that shaped Venus and Serena to be the superstars they’re known today. King Richard reigns supreme in the sports drama genre and will inspire many to believe in one’s dreams and work hard to achieve it.