It is a little strange that a movie about Venus and Serena Williams centres around their father. Both women are head and shoulders above their contemporaries. Both women have shattered records. Each of them deserve a feature film each, honestly. But Richard Williams factored so heavily into their upbringing, it’s easy to see why Will Smith is the lead. Will Smith’s previous attempts at Oscar were fraught. Sure, there are the occasions when he makes Ali, yet he also churns out critical misfires like Seven Pounds and Collateral Beauty. Playing Richard Williams is a safe bet that Will Smith is angling for Oscar again. The difference is, this time he could actually win it.
With a hunch and lispy Louisiana drawl, Smith leans into the domineering persona of Richard, the champion of the two most famous tennis players on Earth. After he sees a tennis player mention that she won $47,000 in a tournament on television, the wheels turn in Richard’s head. He wrote an 85-page plan and set his four-year-old daughters on the path to greatness. You have to wrest life into giving you what you want, otherwise, too much is up to chance. Being in Compton means that the road will be filled with adversity, making the country club slights even harsher. The sneering club members can’t even fathom the violence that lurks for the Williams playing tennis in the park.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green intends his film to be the sort of feel-good sports story that used to dominate previous eras of moviegoing. Offering a look into a specific window of Venus and Serena’s upbringing that even devoted sports fans don’t know. The back-and-forth of tennis is captured with the required heft of two kids looking for that one big break. Considering the way they dominated tennis for two decades, no one could fault the matches for lacking drama. Yet, editor Pamela Martin adds a jolt to the moments that defined Venus and Serena’s ascent to fame.
Sports films typically focus on athletics with a smattering of family subplots to pad the running time. King Richard acknowledges the sport that made Venus and Serena legends while prioritizing the familial dynamic that pushed them to the pinnacle. Venus is given the spotlight as the film shows her progression as an athlete. Still, the film acknowledges the shadow that Serena lived in, despite proving her dominance. Given all we now know about Serena as she won title after title, the choice makes sense, but the sisters’ emotional narratives would’ve benefited from further exploration. However, with the film already at 138 minutes, something had to go.
Richard’s unconventional parenting/coaching was propelled by what he knew Venus and Serena could be. But a large degree of Richard’s attitude comes from his formative years in the Jim Crow South. “No one has ever had any respect for Richard Williams,” he tells Venus and Serena, “but they are going to respect you.” He no doubt loves his daughters, but part of his crusade is ego-driven. As later evidenced when he hands out brochures about Venus and Serena in all-white country clubs, daring anyone to question their abilities on the court. Not a chameleon by any means, Will Smith has been a superstar for so long it’s hard for audiences to see him disappear into a role. That’s not a concern here. Smith’s performance demands your attention, combining equal parts tenacity with a vulnerability reserved only for those behind the curtain.
Smith is going to get a lion’s share of the publicity, though Saniyya Sidney (Venus), Demi Singleton (Serena), and Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene Price) ground the story so that Smith’s flamboyance stands out. Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn also have a good deal of fun dealing with Richard’s crotchety antics, even when they grow more outrageous. But Green has a knack for who should lead the story and, when Richard grates too much, the Williams girls and Aunjanue take centerstage.
It’s difficult to reconcile the belief Richard had in his daughters with the immense pressure that it must have put on them to succeed. When Paul (Goldwyn) watches Venus play, he tells Richard, “I think you might just have the next Michael Jordan.” Smoothly, Richard replies, “Oh no, brother man. I gots me the next two.” The Williams sisters won 30 Grand Slam singles titles and four Olympic golds between them. And it all started with Richard training them with balls collected from clubs he couldn’t join. Richard also shielded them from the constant grind of the media in a way that feels eerily prescient. The value of what Richard Williams did for his daughters is plain to everyone watching Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka fight to preserve their mental health. As demanding as Richard could be, ultimately, he loves the girls enough to let go and trust them to make their own decisions—eventually.
Like another November release (Spencer), King Richard toys with the notion of fate. Fate sealed Diana in, but it has the opposite effect on Venus and Serena. Granting them courage when life keeps trying to corner them in. History repeats itself for Lady Diana horrifically, but Williams sisters triumph. Still, the weight of future greatness bears down on Richard, causing him to alienate those around him. Though the film never deifies the father, Oracene Price’s Aunjanue never fails to hold him accountable. In a standout scene, she tears into him for pushing her aside for ten years, laying bare all the ways Richard isn’t a prophetic genius. He didn’t get Venus and Serena to the top alone.
Made broadly accessible by the presence of Will Smith, the film is unafraid to tackle race and class inside athletics. Though the film is never more poignant than when it conveys the anxiety that comes with trying to do the best for your children. Even the biggest cynics will catch themselves complaining about allergies in the theatre. As sports biopics go, King Richard won’t break the mold, but this story is necessary in a way that other stories aren’t. Venus retired already, and Serena will follow soon. Kids just growing up now are missing out, but the film can inspire them to learn more, much like The Last Dance documentary did for Michael Jordan.
King Richard plays in theatres and streams on HBO Max starting November 19.