By Richard Ades
How did Venus and Serena Williams become two of the greatest tennis players of all time? According to the sports biopic King Richard, it’s because their father mapped out a long-term plan to make it happen and then saw it through.
The flick, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a script by Zach Baylin, portrays Richard Williams (Will Smith) as someone who’s not easy to have as a father, a spouse or a business partner. Sometimes, in fact, he’s downright maddening. But, judging from his daughters’ eventual successes, he does gets results.
The story unfolds in the 1990s, when Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) are entering their teen years while sharing a modest home with their parents and three sisters in Compton, California. Besides pushing all of his daughters to excel in their schoolwork, Richard frequently loads them into his VW bus in the evening and drives them to a scruffy public court to practice their tennis skills.
The exhausting regimen is hard on everyone, including Richard, who’s sometimes harassed and even beaten up by local thugs. But he refuses to ease up, even when wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) tells him it’s too much. “We just got to stick to the plan,” he says.
The most difficult part of that plan is to find a professional coach who’s willing to work with Venus and Serena, the two most promising players, and to do it for free. Richard finally finds such a coach, whom he argues with and ends up firing, then finds an even more prestigious coach with whom he also locks horns. As the years go by, it becomes hard to tell if Richard is still aiding his daughters’ quest for success or standing in their way.
I’ve read one online commentator who makes the feminist complaint that King Richard focuses on a man rather than its rightful subjects, namely two of the world’s most prominent female athletes. That seems a little unfair since the story is set at the very beginning of Venus and Serena’s careers, before they’ve come into their own.
Perhaps a more valid criticism is that the script seldom acknowledges the important role played by their mother, Brandy, who knows a few things about tennis herself and sometimes has to bite her tongue when her husband makes unilateral decisions. The flick partially makes up for this in a late scene—one of the best—in which she finally lets go of years’ worth of frustration.
As one might expect, tennis matches are an intrinsic part of the sports film’s running time, including a climactic contest between one of the girls and an established competitor. These are well photographed and nicely handled by actors Sidney and Singleton and/or their on-court doubles.
Otherwise, the focus is on the members of the close-knit Williams family as Venus and Serena struggle to attain a goal never before reached by Black girls. A strong cast, beginning with Smith in the title role and including Jon Bernthal as enthusiastic coach Rick Macci, keeps things interesting.
At two hours and 26 minutes, the film does lag occasionally, and director Green (with help from composer Kris Bowers) does turn the emotional screws once or twice too often. Mostly, though, this is a fascinating origin story of tennis’s sibling superheroes.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
King Richard (PG-13) opens Nov. 19 at select theaters and online via HBO Max.