The idea that two of the greatest players in the history of tennis could be siblings is remarkable. Not only that, but the fact that they received their training from their own father makes for an unbelievable story. What viewers may not realise about the Williams sisters, is how that story even began – that’s where King Richard comes in.
Richard Williams and his family live in Compton, where gangs roam the streets and the equally dangerous, nosy neighbours keep their eyes fixed on other people’s lives. Will Smith plays the titular character: a man perpetually inhabiting tennis shorts as if his life depended on it. Williams works as a night-time security guard while his wife, Brandy, is a nurse. Their working-class lives are a day-to-day struggle as Williams’ job gives him an eternal look of weariness. During the days, he keeps himself busy by training his two daughters, Venus and Serena, in tennis. Unorthodox methods and exercises are all a part of a plan that he has envisioned for his daughters since before they were even born… so he says at least.
Sports biopics are always an avenue for delivering an inspirational, feel-good story to the masses. King Richard certainly delivers on its inspirational message, however it also isn’t afraid to portray a certain level of reality. Viewers will receive a rally of inspiring speeches, coupled with moments that cast a slanted light. Of course, as this is an authorised biopic, there is always going to be an element of dramatisation in some aspects of it. Here, the film balances it well without seeming false-natured. Characters are not without sin and the film does not pretend to hide this fact.
Will Smith is terrific in the role of Richard Williams. Smith manages to extract sympathy for a character whose actions are always defined by one word: questionable. Smith is no stranger to giving fantastic performances that grant viewers insight into his definite acting ability. His amiable nature and overflow of charisma may hold him back at times but every so often, he puts in a performance that reminds viewers of his broader skill set. The Pursuit of Happyness is a great example of his ability to appear as an average guy struggling to make ends meet. He leaves his humour at home and gives an exceptional dramatic performance. One only needs to glance at I Am Legend to see Smith command the screen in an acting performance that features a rarely seen intense side to him. By combining both facets, Richard Williams seems less like a good choice of casting, and more like a role that he was born to play. The role allows him to not only provide inspirational speeches that will make the hairs on even the most shaven of necks stand tall, but also allows moments that flesh out some of the reality in the character.
King Richard is a verifiable smorgasbord of terrific performances. While word-of-mouth will certainly discuss Will Smith, attention must be paid to the supporting characters with Aunjanue Ellis as Williams matriarch Brandy more than holding her own opposite Smith. She brings a dynamic nature to the role. Her sparring with Smith over the course of the film is a definite reminder of the award potential between the pair. Special mention must also be paid to Jon Bernthal, who goes against type in a role that stands out. He plays the put-upon tennis coach that offers an avenue to greatness for the sisters. His meek nature is the perfect accompaniment to Williams’ imperious foils (most noticeably in a negotiation scene). Saniyya Sidney plays Venus Williams and is nothing short of brilliant in the role. Putting in a great performance when surrounded by the acting calibre on display is no easy feat, but she brings a sense of innocence and drive that embodies the part and makes for an endearing performance.
Timing can be everything. If King Richard were made fifteen years ago… we may have had another The Blind Side – only this time featuring John Bernthal’s whiteness as the hero. Luckily, reality perseveres. A deeper film than meets the eye, the film combines family drama with conversations about race that are refreshing to see. This is a touching story about a father who trained his daughters in a sport that changed the outcome of their lives. However, the film aims to bring a real-world perspective to the Hollywood sports biopic. Conversations surrounding race are present almost everywhere with the idea of Venus’ skin colour being seen as a rarity in the sport. In one scene, Williams scolds a journalist for questioning the then fourteen-year-old Venus with regards to her confidence and reminds him that she is just a child. In another, Brandy styles her daughter’s hair in a touching and tender moment that could have been so easy to miss.
Whatever is said about the real Richard Williams is not necessarily what the film is aiming for here. At times, King Richard may casually side-step his true nature and past discrepancies, but this was never going to be anything other than an upbeat film. The film ends with a blended montage accompanied by a Beyoncé song that is sure to be successful in its own right. To say that this writer didn’t have goosebumps on top of his goosebumps would be an understatement. It is a film that has some questionable elements (one fart joke in particular…). However, the film succeeds in combining a dramatised story with inspirational messaging. For that alone, it deserves attention.