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King Richard (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal, Dylan McDermott, Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Danielle Lawson, Layla Crawford, Andy Bean, Kevin Dunn, Craig Tate, Vaughn W. Hebron, Susie Abromeit, Noah Bean, Erin Cummings, Katrina Begin, Hannah Barefoot, Judith Chapman and Sophia Bui.

Screenplay by Zach Baylin.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green.

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. 138 minutes. Rated R.

Probably only Will Smith could get away with making a film about the early career of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams and not even using their names in the title. In fact, the movie is centered around his relatively unknown character – the Williams sisters’ father – and the title is not even the man’s full name, but a nickname, to boot.

Therefore, you may think of a Shakespearian drama when you hear the title King Richard. But, no, it really is Venus and Serena: The Early Years.

And King Richard really is a very entertaining – if slightly predictable – bio pic about the tennis development of the teenaged Williams sisters and the determined stage dad who devoted himself to turning them into stars.

Honestly, Venus gets more significantly more screen time than Serena, but that is more due to the fact that she was the first born and first one to break out, not a judgment on their relative skills. In fact more than once later in the film, their dad says he expects Venus to become the best player in the world, but eventually Serena will be the best player ever in the game.

As the determined and rather stubborn father who grooms their careers – planning from childhood how they both will be tennis stars – Will Smith creates his most indelible character in quite some time. Because the truth is – and this is a truth that King Richard and Smith both openly acknowledge – in certain ways Richard Williams is responsible for making his girls stars, but in other ways his big mouth, his thirst for the spotlight and his set ways probably actually slowed their progress.

And no matter how hard he worked the girls the cold hard fact is that the skill was there at birth. Venus and Serena are exceptional athletes, and nothing that Richard did – except perhaps for fathering them – changed that fact. If the sisters were born klutzes or not athletic, no matter how much Richard kept on them to practice, they would have never become stars. And with the skills they do have, even had they taken a more traditional path to stardom they would have made it.

Honestly, probably even a larger part in the girls’ development was their mother Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis). She was the real rock of the family, the strong, silent one who pulled the weight and picked up the pieces when Richard made missteps. She knows as well as Richard does the obstacles placed in front of their children as black girls in the then-lily-white sport of tennis, but she does not let those obstacles rule her actions like her husband often did.

However, the fact that Richard is a very fallible hero makes him even more interesting as a character. Smith plays him with great affection for his one-track determination and surety, but he allows the character flaws to shine through as well. It makes Richard a three-dimensional character, one who succeeds not just because of his well-laid plans, but also despite them.

This film lists Venus and Serena Williams as two of the executive producers, so it is nice that they were willing to allow the film to be a warts-and-all depiction of their father and their childhood. What emerges is a very eccentric take on the typical sports bio film. It has many of the expected beats, but it is often straining against the rhythm of the form.

Like the two superstar sisters who inspired this film, King Richard stands out in an often-homogenized crowd just because it is unafraid to be different.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: November 19, 2021.


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