Venus and Serena Williams, the unstoppable, formidable sister duo steamrolled over every opponent in the tennis world for decades. These girls who became women in the circuit were the best players in history, but how many of us know the obstacles they overcame to triumph professionally and personally? “King Richard,” written by Zach Baylin and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, brings us this inspirational tale of rags to riches via a very unlikely path: a father who had a dream.
Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton star as Venus and Serena, respectively, as the powerhouses before their notoriety and fame. A mere 10 and 12 years of age, Venus and Serena, growing up in the dangerous and well-known Los Angeles area called Compton, are coached by their eccentric father, Richard (Will Smith). Living in a 2 bedroom home, they and their 3 sisters worked incredibly hard while their parents, living meagerly to make ends meet, provided love and stability with the hopes of having a better future. Richard’s knew this would come via his two tennis players daughters…he wrote it in his “plan” before the girls were even born.
Richard followed his plan religiously, gaining access to the best tennis coaches in the country including Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and the renowned Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). But Richard’s approach, a very unconventional one, leads to frustration by the powers that be and awkward moments for all of us watching the events unfold.
Richard’s perseverance and spot-on clairvoyance of events to come are the thread that stitches the story together, but the foundation of the story comes from the love of a father and a mother who stand firm for their beliefs. While they buck the system, keeping their daughters’ humility in check and finding a way to let them still be kids, Richard’s mantra of “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” rings true, much to Goldwyn and especially Macci’s chagrin.
The story tackles the obstacles of living in poverty and in a gang-ridden environment where survival is a part of each and every day. The racial prejudice is evident, but frequently this is presented with ironic humor. Incredibly, there is a lot of humor in the film balanced delicately by the dramatic elements to create one of the most entertaining films of the year.
Richard’s past is a part of this racial prejudice as he relays heartbreaking tales of his own childhood. The heartbreak continues with beatings from gang leaders, but never does Richard break. It’s as if he always sees the end goal in sight, all supported by his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). While they present a united front to the public and to their girls, Oracene and Richard have two pivotal scenes that allow us to see the reality of their relationship.
Making a biopic is a tough task as they frequently become watered down versions of the truth seen through rose colored glasses. “King Richard” boldly tells the story with warts and blemishes of their lives, making this a story that feels real. Richard comes off at times as selfless and other times embarrassingly selfish. His strength in his marriage and Oracene’s loyalty comes from faith, but it’s not perfect by any means. And we see the sisterly bond between all of the girls, watching Serena live in Venus’s shadow, and learn lessons from watching “Cinderella.”
While we know how the story ends, it’s vitally important to see how the story began and the journey these two women traveled to get to that end point. Sidney and Singleton shine in their roles as the tennis stars who trust in their parents’ lead. Their innocence and confidence is brilliantly demonstrated both on and off the court as their characters attempt to rise through the ranks even when their father unilaterally pulls the rug out from beneath them. Both Sidney and Singleton’s soft spoken demeanor fits their characters, but there’s a light that shines within them that brings a sense of vibrancy and emotion.
The entire cast finds just the right cadence and affect, and Bernthal’s unique character as he embodies Macci is standout, but Smith’s transformative performance creates a Richard Williams that has depth and heart, with so many layers reminding us to never judge a book by its cover. He easily finds the wackiness of Richard, complete with his odd speech style and body posture, but also delivers love and determination with his voice and eyes to give us a complete picture. Smith has found another role that should put him in the spotlight come Oscar time.
Of course, this is a film about a specific sport which requires incredible cinematography and editing to bring us into the tournaments and games. It’s intensely paced as we hang on for this exciting ride, watching the line and calling the game in our heads. “King Richard” is an inspirational film filled with humor, heart, and humility…you can’t ask for more.