You know going into King Richard, there will be a happy ending. Anyone sitting down to watch this biopic probably realizes that the end title cards will list the astounding accomplishments of two of the world’s greatest athletes, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. This assured happy ending in the film makes the success of their younger selves feel inevitable, instead of anything but. Tennis was a sport long dominated by rich, white players. So, the rise of two Black phenoms from Compton was not just unexpected, it was the exhilarating stuff of a Hollywood movie. Yet, this Hollywood movie focuses not on the Black girls who defied expectation, pitfalls, and much, much prejudice to become living legends. King Richard focuses on their dad Richard Williams, and it’s as if this biopic is an application for his canonization.
Will Smith stars in the titular role and serves as producer on King Richard. It’s easy to see why. Screenwriter Zach Baylin has scripted the kind of meaty part that the Academy loves to reward. Here is the dashing leading man, letting his glamor savvily slip. His face is peppered with wrinkles and grey hair. His crisp diction is dropped for a rumbling lisp, while he delivers scads of speeches about principal, perseverance, and parenthood. He’ll righteously make denouncements about America’s anti-Black racism too. But that touchy topic comes up mostly in dialogue, creating a distance that allows a white audience to feel unchallenged, and as if those problems are from way back when. (As if they don’t still impact the Williams sisters today). Smith does all this with the megawatt charisma of the longtime A-list movie star that he is. Make no mistake, Smith is a force in King Richard. His Best Actor nomination will be as deserved as it may be inevitable. That doesn’t make King Richard a great film though.
Smith is a force in King Richard. His Best Actor nomination will be as deserved as it may be inevitable.
Playing Richard Williams is personal to Smith. The celebrated star has loved the controversial coach from ‘90s interviews, in which the proud father defended his daughters’ confidence and unapologetically predicted they’d go on to be all-time champions. It’s easy to imagine that as a father, Smith sees himself in Williams’s unshakeable belief in his children, and his drive to push them toward greatness in an industry where hard work might be rewarded with fame and fortune. King Richard clearly wants Williams’s story to be an aspirational one, one that cheers, “Look what a family can do if they pull together!” However, this is not a story about the Williams family (which is larger than the film shows). It is not even a movie about a father and two of his daughters. This is firmly a movie about Richard Williams and absolving him of all his missteps. The end justifies whatever means because his vision for Venus and Serena came true.
The film begins with the Williams sisters as children, training on the concrete courts in Compton while their older sister shrugs off the aggressive advances of gang members. When Richard isn’t fielding balls and coaching, he’s protectively thrusting himself between the girls and the gang, and getting pummeled for it. Back home, his neighbors snarl that he works the girls too hard, making them train every day, even in the rain. He’ll respond with a passionate monologue about his 80+ point plan to success, which will assure these streets don’t bring down his daughters as they have so many others. It’s moving stuff in no small part because of Smith’s conviction. His signature swagger is channeled smoothly into Richard’s indomitable determination. However, because of Smith’s charm and the guaranteed happy ending, there are no real stakes at play. You’ll never feel the threat of losing.
A montage of rich white men scoffing at Richard’s plan is played for comedy, painting them all as morons, because the possibility of defeat is treated as so distant. How could anyone doubt this rumpled showman? Yet, that possibility was immense. With a homemade brochure in hand, Richard was laying down a big ask of years of free coaching, betting that he has the “next two” Michael Jordans on his hands. It should feel unlikely, a dream almost dangerously big. It should feel like all this practice and all this pushing could come to nothing. That risk of spectacular failure is what makes the victories in sports movies transcendently thrilling. You have to establish the underdog’s challenges to properly celebrate overcoming them. Instead, director Reinaldo Marcus Green presents Williams’s journey with a wink, suggesting Richard is a genius tripped up by a world of fools, from the doubters in his neighborhood to the country club snobs to the vile reporters who call him a “huckster.” Any questioning of his character is put in the mouths of two-dimensional side characters, who are painted as jealous, prejudiced, or ignorant.
This fawning portrait of this proud patriarch is flanked by thin sketches of Venus and Serena, played by the winsome duo of Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton. Nearly all of their screentime is in scenes with Richard, in which the girls are beaming broadly, nodding at his advice, and even proclaiming him their best friend. Venus, whose career in tennis began before her younger sister, is only granted two scenes without Richard, where her feelings are the focus. Both chiefly express that she loves tennis. Serena gets even less attention. In her big moment, she doesn’t give voice to a bottled-up mix of pride and jealousy. Instead, Richard makes assumptions about her feelings, speaking for her. She nods in agreement as if he’s suggested widening her stance. Now, the real Williams sisters are producers on the project. So, presumably, they approve of being sidelined in the film. Yet, they are the big stars in real life, so it’s frustrating as a viewer to see their characters get so little time to shine onscreen.
The most concentrated — and rewarding — conflict comes between Richard and pro tennis coach Rick Macci, played by a jaunty Jon Bernthal. Here, Richard meets what might be his match, a man who joins him not only in determination but also in bravado. The movie comes alive as Richard’s wins don’t feel as guaranteed, because Macci isn’t painted as a caricature of arrogant upper crusty privilege. He’s a true believer whose reasonable doubts are based on decades of Tennis tradition. The film won’t bother to explain the sport to newbies. By providing a crisp contrast, Bernthal’s performance grounds how the Williams family changed the game on the court and behind the scenes.
Perhaps because there’s no attempt to make the rules of tennis clear, the actual sports scenes were a bit underwhelming. There’s an undeniable excitement when the cinematography goes slow-motion, taking in the mighty power of Venus’s swing connecting to the ball. But Green doesn’t frame the actual games in a way that rushes audiences into the action. Instead, we’re urged to look to the reaction shots of Richard, and how he feels about what he’s witnessing as a father and a coach. Though emotionally rooted, it doesn’t translate into contextual stakes, because win or lose, his expression is the same: rigid focus.
It’s exactly the kind of movie that’d do well on family movie night.
In the end, King Richard is driving hard to be a feel-good movie that celebrates a Black father who overcame the odds to lift his family out of poverty and guided his daughters’ to their full potential. It succeeds there, proving a crowdpleaser that has a robust sense of warmth, humor, and heart. With Will Smith in the lead, it’s exactly the kind of movie that’d do well on family movie night, where a focus on togetherness and platitudes plays better than controversy or complications. Yet because it’s papering over the more complicated parts of its real-life inspiration, this glossy coating chafes at points.
Your mind may well wonder what else is glossed over or left out entirely. I did. After researching, I wish Smith and Green had not run from the complexities of Richard’s character but grappled with them. Then, they might have shown how even a flawed man might become a great father. Admittedly, such an angle would be less crowd-pleasing, but potentially more powerful.