By Zach Goins
October 28, 2021
For three decades the Williams sisters have captivated the tennis world and now they’re primed to do the same on the big screen. Or should we say, their father’s story.
King Richard tells the story of Richard Williams, the charismatic and iron-willed coach and father of Venus and Serena. Will Smith stars in the leading role– one that has already been dubbed worthy of winning the next Best Actor Oscar– and neither he, nor the film, disappoint.
Considering the Williams sisters have been in their prime since they first stepped onto a tennis court, it’s impossible not to know of their tremendous success. But what most casual tennis fans may not know is how they got onto that court– the story of their upbringing and introduction to the world of tennis. This works in the favor of King Richard, as the film gladly educates viewers on the gaps in their storied careers in a way that’s both informative and entertaining. One element of the film that came as a surprise was its emphasis on Venus and her rise to stardom. As the older of the sisters and the first to go pro, Venus and her relationship with her father carry the majority of the film, from her first training session through her first professional tournament.
King Richard takes us back to the beginning, to a time when Richard Williams (Smith) knew he had greatness in his household. For the five daughters under his roof, mediocrity is not an option. Whether it’s education, religion, family or tennis, Richard ensures his daughters are pushed to be their best– none more so than Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Whether they’re practicing in a downpour or trekking across town to top facilities, he gives his all to his two tennis prodigies.
In order to be the best, the girls have to be coached by the best: Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). Rick may be the best coach in the world, but he’s not the King and Richard isn’t quick to give up his power over his daughters’ futures.
Smith’s portrayal of Richard is worthy of all the awards season praise he is rightfully receiving. Bringing to life a character who is simultaneously the biggest person in the room and the most insecure is no easy feat, yet Smith’s charisma and talent make it seem like a breeze. The two-time Oscar nominee flexes his entire range here, alternating from charmingly earnest to frustratingly stubborn as seamlessly as a volley at Wimbledon.
Beyond Smith’s stellar leading role, King Richard feels like a fairly traditional sports drama. That’s not meant as a slight; in this case, it works to the film’s benefit. When the characters, performers and subject matter are as compelling as what’s found in King Richard, there’s no use overcomplicating things. It plays the hits when it comes to a sports drama– the early training days and the competitive setback, all leading up to the big match– but it manages to add a bit of nuance in its final act to help it from feeling too familiar.
The only significant complaint for King Richard relates to its 138-minute runtime. It feels every minute of that length and could use tightening. As a film focused on two tennis greats, it’s a given the film will have, well, tennis, but there are times when it can feel more like an ESPN broadcast than a movie. These sequences are still exciting, but the frequency takes away from what’s truly the most compelling here: the characters. Considering most of the drama occurs off the court, save for the final match, trimming a practice sequence here and a match montage there would go a long way towards making this an instant sports classic.
While it may not cement itself as a first-ballot sports movie, King Richard is certainly a worthy one. The film lets its stars and feel-good story do all the heavy lifting, and when you’ve got one of Will Smith’s very best performances, that’s more than enough.
King Richard will be released in theaters and HBO Max on November 19, 2021.