King Richard Will Smith

King Richard focuses on the mentor of the most famous sisters in tennis

While conventional, this story about Serena and Venus Williams’ father hits the right notes.

At the heart of King Richard, a biopic about Serena and Venus Williams’ father Richard, is an explosion of joy. Conventional in many ways, as both a sports film and a biography film, it circumvents many obvious pitfalls by embracing the laughter and adventure of childhood. Beyond practising in the rain, on poorly maintained courts, there’s a deep-rooted sense of celebration. The “creation” of the Williams sisters was not just hard work and endurance; it was a supportive and loving family structure. It was about sisterhood and self-esteem. 

It’s difficult not to be cynical about a film like this one. Still, it’s equally difficult to ignore the importance of self-assurance needed to navigate the white, elitist tennis world as a Black family in the 1990s. The movie doesn’t shy away from faults and mishaps; Richard is vain and hard-headed. The screenplay doesn’t assume his decisions will pay off, even if they do. When he makes questionable choices, the movie doesn’t necessarily stand by him. Will Smith’s performance eschews easy relatability by creating a film character that feels larger than life; at times, it is abrasive and almost exclusively narrow-focused. He’s an exciting lens for this story, if only because he’s so obviously flawed. His children shine because of and despite his decisions. It’s a narratively compelling decision. 

While the film is about their father, as the film goes on, Venus Williams becomes a greater arbitrator of her fate and a more prominent character in the movie. The young actress Saniyya Sidney strikes a fantastic balance in the role, evoking the innocence and whimsy of youth and the disciplined intelligence of an accomplished athlete. Her presence is astonishing, and one senses her power when she enters any room. She not only holds her own against some incredible actors, but she also relates to her costars in a way that feels familiar and comfortable. 

While mostly a performance showcase for Will Smith, who is remarkably good, both Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi Williams and Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci are also stand-outs. Smith never entirely disappears into the role, but as one of the last movie stars, his charisma and presence carry many scenes. Ellis has a more thankless role but is bolstered by solid writing; she is not merely a background player in someone else’s story but a woman with clearly articulated values and needs. Bernthal, sporting an impressive moustache, wears his heart on his sleeve and captures the borderline garish over-the-topness of the real tennis trainer. 

The tennis scenes are rather remarkable — well shot and edited and always in service of character. Even for non-tennis fans, the tennis-playing is easy to follow but also exciting. The film does a great job at integrating these scenes to move everything forward rather than bring the movie to a standstill. The editing similarly emphasizes particularities of the Williams sisters game that set them apart and pushed them ahead. 

King Richard is not without imperfections. The movie is too long, particularly in the first half. The set-up required emphasizes the painstaking efforts Richard had to take to get his daughters the support they needed but also drags on. The film only begins to take off once Venus comes into clearer focus, mainly because of Sidney’s charismatic presence. Narratively it also means the many hunches and trials are working in service of a more focused goal. The movie sticks very close to expectations, but that is as much a strength as a weakness. 

King Richard doesn’t necessarily challenge conventions but demonstrates how confident and intelligent filmmaking within the confines of the genre can be especially rewarding. Often combining the best virtues of the biopic and the sports film, it is a rather unexpected win. It’s a movie that is motivational without being cloying. It’s a compelling character portrait that doesn’t ignore the flaws and failures of its lead character. ■

King Richard opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 19.

King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

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