Released: 13th January
Seen: 15th March
If you were to ask who is the greatest athlete alive today, you could absolutely say Venus or Serena Williams and get absolutely no arguments from anyone with half a brain. Since their debut match, the Williams sisters have been widely considered to be two of the greatest tennis players to ever hit the court and with good reason. Their rise to fame is nothing short of meteoric and undeniably due to their talent. Venus Williams currently has won Wimbledon 5 times and Serena has won 23 Grand Slam championships, both of them would tell you that a large part of their success is due to their coaching at the hands of their father Richard Williams, AKA King Richard.
King Richard focuses most of its story on Richard Williams (Will Smith), a man working multiple jobs in order to pay the bills who uses his spare time to coach his young tennis protege daughters Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney). Coaching two black girls to be the best at a sport that’s normally played by the wealthy white kids presents a lot of problems though, from dealing with the people in the clubhouses who don’t seem to appreciate what’s in front of them to just the general difficulties of getting your foot in the door. Richard, however, refuses to let those doors keep closing in his face and eventually gets coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) to help guide his daughters into superstardom… of course, they can only do that if Richard learns to stop controlling every step of the process, a thing he seems unable to do.
By focusing the story of King Richard on… well, Richard, the film gives us a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes moves that had to be made in order to get the Williams sisters to where they were. We see the arguments, the battles, the stubborn force of will that pushes Richard through to get his kids exactly where they need to be in order to be the best that they could be. We see how much of himself Richard put out there to protect his kids and all of it is perfectly played by Will Smith, reminding us why he’s been one of the most beloved stars in Hollywood history by playing a character who by all rights should eventually start to get annoying but always finding a way to make you root for Richard. It’s a nuanced performance that just really carries King Richard.
It also doesn’t hurt that, despite being close to 2 and a half hours, King Richard feels like it goes by so quickly that you can only just barely keep up with it. There’s a special kind of energy that just keeps building and building, every scene you feel more and more invested until the grand final where we finally see the fruits of everything that’s been built throughout the movie and you find it impossible to look away. Even as a person who, to be frank, doesn’t give a damn about sport or even understand why people like it, it’s impossible not to get fully into this story and get why everyone was so passionate about it.
On top of handling the story of an unlikely rise to fame, King Richard isn’t afraid to confront the politics that come along with the story. Everyone involved here knows that this story is about a black family coming into a game known for being mostly white and defying expectations, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about racism that needs to come along with this story and the film handles it deftly either by having Richard just flat out call it out or suggesting it so heavily in some particular moments that you just feel the visceral pain that one would feel having to endure that.
Now, you may have noticed by this point that it’s all been about Richard and the names “Venus” and “Serena” stopped being brought up right after their actor’s names were mentioned and that’s because of the main problem with King Richard… which is that Venus and Serena are background characters in a story about how they rose to fame. To be fair here, Venus and Serena are executive producers and we must assume that this is how they want their story to be told and that’s fine but it makes for a strange viewing experience when you watch a story about how Venus and Serena became superstars and they have maybe a dozen lines of dialogue during the entire affair.
This means we only get to know how good they are because King Richard keeps telling us how good they are. We never see how they react to being pulled out of Junior competition or how they feel about changing coaches, at best we might get a brief scene where they’re a little annoyed but then we have to go back over to Richard again. It might be the way the filmmakers have decided to tell the story, but that doesn’t mean it feels right.
There are long stretches of King Richard where Venus and Serena just don’t say anything, we assume they’re just off-screen practicing without us actually knowing about it, meaning when there’s meant to be moments where they do something important or unexpected (Like, for example, Serena signing up for a tournament without anyone’s approval) we only know it’s a bad thing because Richard tells us that explicitly, we don’t see the girls doing anything beyond just playing tennis and that feels wrong.
However, if you take King Richard for what it actually is and not what it could or probably should be, it’s still a very good film about perseverance and triumphing over the odds with several genuinely great performances, a fast building pace that never drops the ball and more than a few viscerally exciting matches that shows off the skill we’re talking about here. Sure it would have been lovely to actually have a film about the rise of Venus and Serena that doesn’t push them off to the sidelines but what’s here is a genuinely good film that will undoubtedly delight.