*NOTE: This review was previously part of our Middleburg Film Festival coverage.*
Before Venus and Serena Williams became just Venus & Serena, you were as likely to hear about their demanding, controversial father Richard Williams as the two future tennis greats. The outspoken father was a one-man circus act, fighting with the press, making a fool of himself in front of cameras, and constantly drew attention to himself. When a film about his daughters was announced, from Monsters & Men director Reinaldo Marcus Green, it made perfect sense. To learn it was actually titled King Richard and centered around Richard…well, that felt like an unforced error waiting to happen. Who would want to root for that guy?
Well, it turns out King Richard is an ace with one Hell of a powerful serve. Perhaps it’s unfair to call this a Richard Williams movie, it’s definitely told from his perspective, but the story is about the raising of Venus and Serena into future tennis Hall of Famers, despite emerging from the most un-tennis-like of places: Compton, a place that many tennis fans and players only know from Friday or N.WA. And that knowledge of their inevitable greatness does temper some of the extremes we see Richard go to that make him look like a megalomaniac with a devious plan that he sticks to tighter than Thanos and his quest for the Infinity Gauntlet.
So Will Smith has quite a balancing act here in portraying Williams, who many of us (myself included) have at one point or another perceived as an anvil on the careers of Venus and Serena. Clearly, he is not…well, a normal parent. The film begins with Richard at all-white country clubs peddling his plan for the girls, a 78-page plan he says he devised before they were even born. He saw a tennis player on TV talk about making $47K at a tournament and told his wife Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) they need to make two more kids because this tennis thing is a pretty good racket. My bad pun, not his. And so Richard and Oracene took to training Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) night and day, while also holding down blue-collar jobs of their own. The rundown tennis court the girls train at is in stark contrast to the elite establishment Richard peddles his ideas to wealthy white men; the place is covered in trash, leaves, and surrounded by gangs that hit on his daughters and occasionally beat his ass up.
King Richard holds nothing back in showing how Richard is disrespected from people all across the color map. When a white man suggests Richard “consider basketball” for his daughters, we get what he’s talking about. At the same time, Black people don’t treat him well, either. Whether it’s the bullying thugs who hold him up at gunpoint and late pistol whip him, to the neighbor who calls Social Services because the girls are being trained too hard, Richard is attacked on all sides. It’s a feeling he’s grown accustomed to but never accepts; in fact, much of the film is about the chip on his shoulder he’s carried for decades, having grown up fighting the KKK on the streets of Shreveport. Those battles have never left him; and they colour every single action he takes, even the ones that look pretty silly and perhaps even detrimental.
The balancing act isn’t just Smith’s. Zach Baylin’s screenplay shows the pros and cons of Williams’ aggressive antics, and the impact they have on the people he claims to be protecting. His daughters, which include eldest Yetunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew), Lyndrea (Layla Crawford), and Isha (Daniel Lawson), are brilliant in their studies, showing that the Williams household has it covered in making sure the girls excel in all things. At the same time, he undermines or ignores Oracene at every turn (she calls him on his shit at a crucial moment), disregarding her contributions to the girls’ growth. He lies to and manipulates pro trainers Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rich Macci (Jon Bernthal), interfering in their training efforts. Worse are the head games he plays with Venus and Serena, teaching them overly harsh lessons and even threatening to leave them stranded in the proven dangerous streets of Compton because they weren’t humble to his liking. He also dangles, then takes away their dreams when it suits him, and this becomes relevant in the final act as Venus begins in the Junior circuit with aspirations of going pro. While the girl dominates her field easily, Richard repeatedly denies her desire to take it to the next level, claiming he doesn’t want her to be another young superstar who burned out, like Jennifer Capriati.
But it’s also clear that, despite the massive insecurities that weigh Richard down, depicted by Smith with a heavy slouch and slow gait that borders on caricature early on, his intentions are almost always good. Richard goes to such lengths to protect his daughters from the disrespect he faced, but also to shield them from the burden they’ll have to carry as ambassadors for millions of Black girls who also have dreams. The messaging can get a bit heavy-handed, and depictions of Richard’s racially charged encounters are done with an overhead smash when toeing the baseline is more appropriate.
While Smith will get the bulk of the attention, as he should, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are also excellent as the championship siblings. Talk about challenging roles that the world will be watching extra closely! Sidney has the bulk of the dramatic weight as the story mostly focuses on Venus’ efforts, as she was the older sister and, at least in the beginning, the better player. And she does an excellent job of showing Venus’ maturity but also her youthful excitement, which is occasionally derailed by Richards’ eccentric demeanor. Singleton, whose Serena simmers in the background like a pot ready to boil over, and when it’s over you kind of want to see her story continue to where we know it’s headed.
Whatever your thoughts on Richard Williams, King Richard offers a fair accounting of the man despite the shiny Hollywood portrayal fully endorsed by the Williams family. His less savory traits are at least mentioned, such as a son he basically abandoned, while emphasizing his fanatical desire for the Williams name to be respected. This is one of the best performances Will Smith has ever given. Smith makes Richard Williams, this oddball who is as much carnival barker as loving father and tennis trainer, a larger-than-life figure that you want to succeed because you know that means Venus and Serena succeed. And if they can succeed, Black girls everywhere can succeed. King Richard is a true crowd-pleaser, but far from formulaic because Richard Williams is anything but common and his daughters are exceptional.
King Richard will open in theaters and HBO Max on November 19th.