Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player who ever lived, and Venus isn’t too far behind. Their story was tailor-made for cinema, but King Richard shines the spotlight on their father. In a more traditional sports biopic, Richard Williams would merely be a supporting player. While giving him center stage could’ve been a gross miscalculation, this approach instead breaths new life into a familiar formula. At its core, King Richard is still Serena and Venus’ story. To understand their struggles, though, we have to understand where it all started.
Will Smith has been one of Hollywood’s most charismatic actors for over almost thirty years, but he’s been stuck on the “Failed Oscar Bait” train as of late. He gave a compelling performance in Concussion, but it wasn’t necessarily among that year’s best performances. Smith was one of the few redeeming factors in Collateral Beauty, but nobody complained when the Academy overlooked that film. King Richard is easily Smith’s most emotional work since The Pursuit of Happyness and his most transformative performance to date. Smith’s transformation goes beyond the makeup and shorts. His portrayal gets to the root of Richard’s two driving forces: love and ego.
Smith moves with the demeanor of someone who’s struggled for everything he has, from his rundown house to the vintage Volkswagen he piles his family into. As tired as Richard appears, he refuses to give up his pursuit of excellence. Aunjanue Ellis delivers a resilient supporting performance as Oracene Price, Richard’s loyal yet outspoken wife. Richard convinces Oracene to have two more children with the intent of turning them into tennis superstars. He trains Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) nonstop, but still encourages them to balance the game with education. When Richard isn’t on the court with them, he’s attempting to find a professional coach. After multiple failed encounters, he lands a couple of high-profile teachers, including Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). Even then, though, Richard calls all the shots.
Much like a tennis ball in play, our opinion of Richard swings left and right. Half of the time, we see an egomaniac using his daughters to compensate for his shortcomings and fulfill his broken dreams. The other half, we see a loving father who wants nothing more than for his children to succeed. Either way, everything is on Richard’s terms. Blurring the line between coach and parent, Richard’s approach arouses skepticism from neighbors, players, and the police. At the end of the game, though, he usually gets results. Nevertheless, there comes a point where Richard needs to give his children control over their fate. Herein lies King Richard’s appeal.
King Richard isn’t about tennis. It’s not even about a controlling father. It’s about two young women coming into their own. The film’s final act belongs just as much to Sidney’s Venus as it belongs to Smith. The climactic match is reminiscent of Rocky. We’re hooked with every move, but once the score is tallied, we find that the outcome doesn’t matter. Venus overcomes a force even more powerful than Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. Likewise, Richard overcomes his two biggest fears, letting go of his daughter and his crown.