A Will Smith tennis movie.
That is how “King Richard” could be pitched to audiences, but this would be far from the whole truth. The film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”), is not just a moving sports drama or an Oscar vehicle for its star, Will Smith (“Men in Black”). It’s a beautifully made and exceptionally acted drama. With a firm structure and a strong sense of pace, the themes of “King Richard” are explored in a tasteful and nuanced fashion, and the movie flows naturally into its emotional core.
The story follows Richard Williams (Smith), the father of Venus (Saniyya Sidney, “Hidden Figures”) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton, “Godfather of Harlem”). Let’s get this out of the way: Will Smith’s portrayal of Richard is quite possibly his best acting performance. While his storied career is full of comedic, fun roles, he has occasionally pursued more dramatic, serious roles, such as in “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” In this movie, he completely disappears into Richard’s persona. Everything from the timbre of his voice to the quality of his gait is molded into the shape of Richard Williams.
Sidney and Singleton are both delightful in their roles as the sisters. Portraying Venus, Sidney gets more time to flex her emotional muscles, and she has more dramatic scenes with Smith. Her acting rivals his — some of the scenes they share are the rawest and emotionally vulnerable in the film. In a virtual press conference, Sidney said, “it was very important to make sure I let people know how big of a heart Venus has.”
Both Sidney and Singleton are excellent in portraying the happy, go-lucky girls, and their innocence and hijinks remind the audience that these are children. Not yet the tennis superstars we know today.
Richard’s wife Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis, “Ray”) is portrayed as a worthy equal, and occasional adversary, to Richard. They both want their girls to be educated and successful tennis stars, but Richard is far more stubborn and difficult than Oracene. She knows when to be their daughters’ coach, when to back off and let them be kids; a distinction that Richard doesn’t seem to understand. Ellis’s interpretation provides a more healthy and understanding approach to coaching and raising the girls, compared to Richard’s myopic insistence on following his plan.
One of the most central aspects of this film is the exploration of being a parent. How being a focused and protective parent can mean ignoring the advice and wishes of your spouse, the experts that surround you and your own children. Much of the conflict in this story comes from Richard’s stubbornness and his refusal to listen to Venus’s pleas, Oracene’s assertions, or the rock-solid professional advice of the girl’s coach, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, “The Many Saints of Newark”). And, as the film slowly reveals, this extremely rigid style of parenting doesn’t just come from love, but also from fear and past trauma. As Smith said, “I fell in love with Richard Williams … I knew I wanted to show a father protecting a daughter like (a lion).” It shows.
The movie also explores the disadvantages and hardships of getting resources and finding coaches that Venus and Serena, two Black girls from a lower socioeconomic background, faced in a sport that was dominated by the white and rich. These inequalities are most powerfully revealed when they are communicated through passionate exchanges between Richard and his kids.
“King Richard” is an impressive film about parenting within the context of sports and success. Every emotional moment comes across as genuine and earned — it’s hard not to tear up in the third act. If you just came for Will Smith, you’ll be pleasantly surprised: This movie is an inspirational, confident drama that just happens to star Will Smith. I can’t think of a better display of his acting abilities.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.