There’s a particular heartbreak in watching a man being beaten up in front of his little kids. We see it happen early on here, after Richard Williams (Will Smith) confronts a local hood for flirting with his young daughter Venus (Saniyya Sidney). It’s not, we learn, the first time it’s happened to the oft patronized, oft dismissed, oft humiliated father.
King Richard, exec-produced by Venus and Serena, is a love letter to his dogged ambition, without which, they’ve said, they would never have become who they are. A biopic that doesn’t feel like a biopic, a sports film that doesn’t feel like a sports film, it’s a freewheeling but intense family drama, a tribute to the love that bound them — even if their father’s bullishness repeatedly threatened to break it all up.
Smith’s version of Richard Williams doesn’t care what anyone thinks, with an often unbearable bullheadedness: he’s the Terminator of tennis parents, dismissing those who displease him, unafraid of insulting those with power, at one point ending a meeting he doesn’t like by farting. He’s a cocktail of confidence and insecurity, walking with a hunch that betrays how he really sees himself. Smith immerses himself in Williams, wielding only minor make-up (mostly eyebrows) to look more like, well, the rest of us — so hardly Charlize Theron/Aileen Wuornos levels of disguise, but enough to make it not seem like The Will Smith Show. It’s his best work in years.
Yet, despite the title character taking centre stage, Venus and Serena share the spotlight. The young Sidney and Demi Singleton give a pair of vibrant performances that convey Venus and Serena’s undeniable star quality, performed with a naturalism that makes the actors feel like real sisters. The whole family seems tight, including Aunjanue Ellis as Richard’s long-suffering wife Brandi, who exudes a quiet power, which ends up being not so quiet when she’s pushed.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green broke out with 2018’s taut drama Monsters And Men, which explored race through the eyes of conflicted characters. And race is a heartbeat here too, bubbling in the background as Richard breaks down the doors of a gleaming white industry. Zach Baylin’s screenplay positions Richard as a man refusing to be hemmed in, refusing to know his place, refusing to fall into the hands of those that might want him and his family to fail. He is determined to climb out of Compton.
King Richard doesn’t reinvent the wheel, doesn’t take any wild swings, happy to deliver a solid crowdpleaser. But what’s great is what doesn’t happen. There are no big cheesy moments. No montages. No melodrama. It hits the beats you’d want but without falling into cliché, with warmth baked in so much that you’re swept along throughout, rooting for every Williams on screen. And it looks so pretty, Robert Elswit’s cinematography basking it all in a golden glow — and in love.