Much has been said about the real Richard Williams when his daughters Venus and Serena were coming up on the youth tennis circuit, and King Richard examines the Williams family patriarch’s role in the rise of these two tennis legends, albeit with a favorable and warm glow. This embodies everything that we love in sports films. Optimistic and enduring, especially when the story is based on a real-life success story.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, with a screenplay by Zach Baylin, King Richard follows the inspiring tale of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton) in the years before their rise to stardom in 1994. Will Smith delivers a stirring performance as the titular Richard, who has planned out his daughters’ futures since birth with his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). Determined, he hustles every day, jumping from their local court in Compton to work at night to scouting coaches for his daughters. But Richard is not simply looking for someone to take his daughters on and lead them onto victory, he has a plan and he sticks to it, and that requires a firm and guiding hand even if that means coming into conflict with their coaches (Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal) or even Oracene.
Directorially, Green is rather straightforward, keeping the focus primarily on Richard’s hustle and dedication, leaning into his role in Venus and Serena’s success more than Venus or Serena. The two tennis stars are on the stage, but this is undoubtedly a story about their father’s commitment to their success and also happiness. Proving that his daughters can be both tennis superstars but also spend time working on their school work, going to church, enjoying free time. This is a man with a plan and that plan does not include burnout.
While some criticism has been lodged at the film for its rather sanitized version of Richard Williams, it’s hard to imagine a film approved by the Williams family to paint their patriarch in a negative light or toxic manner. But in a media landscape that often is reluctant to portray Black fathers as positive, dependable, and loving figures, King Richard stands above it all. It blends sports biopic with family drama, shedding light on the past of two of the world’s greatest athletes of all time, a past that most younger modern viewers won’t be familiar with.
Smith’s performance only magnifies the film’s brilliance, being able to balance the role of a fussy, helicopter father with a man who is doing his best to keep the shadows of his own past from affecting progress. It’s one of Smith’s best performances to date, reminding us of his roles in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. But that’s not to discount Aunjanue Ellis, who plays a proud Oracene Price with grace and deserves more of the screen time than she is offered. While the film is titled King Richard, the story makes no mistakes about Oracene’s mammoth involvement in the development and success of their daughters.
The winning scenes of the film often involve Smith and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, though the camera tends to favor Smith over the two young actors who fully embrace the youthful liveliness and competitive spirit of their characters. Both have their own moments to shine, especially when the family moves to Florida and the sisters join Rick Macci’s tennis academy. Jon Bernthal’s bouncy energy plays off Sidney, Singleton, and Smith, which is a refreshing turn for the actor who has so often played more serious and somber roles.
The chemistry between the actors, the positive portrayal of the character, and an award-winning performance help bolster King Richard. It does indeed put a man at the center of a story about two iconic female athletes, but it proves its importance there. Would there be a Venus or Serena Williams today without a Richard Williams pushing the kids forward every day and dedicating his life to their success? King Richard says no, and it makes a convincing argument.
King Richard is available in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.