Like all good sports films “King Richard,” the crowd-pleasing look at the early life of tennis superstars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton), isn’t really about the sport. Sure, the action builds toward the climatic 1994 tennis match that made Venus a household name, but it is more about the back-and-forth between the family members than it is about batting a ball back-and-forth.
Exec-produced by Venus and Serena, “King Richard” begins with a plan and determination.
Compton, California parents Richard Williams (Will Smith) and Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis) are raising their five daughters with love, discipline and a plan. Tunde (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew), Isha (Danielle Lawson) and Lyndrea (Layla Crawford) are all successful students in school, top of their class, but the film focusses on Venus and Serena, the tennis prodigies and subjects of Richard’s 78-page plan. It’s a bulky document written before their births, that lays out the steps to personal and professional success on the tennis court.
Richard’s mantra is, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
He is tireless in his devotion to Venus and Serena, training the pre-teens on a neighborhood court as if they were already playing at a professional level. The odds are stacked against them—the chances of one family producing this kind of genius, Richard is told, is like one family producing two Mozarts—but their talent, nurtured by both Richard and Oracene, and an unwavering allegiance to the plan, point them in the direction of Wimbledon and beyond.
“I think you might have the next Michael Jordan on your hands,” says tennis coach Rick Macci.
“No,” Richard replies, “I got two.”
“King Richard” may be the most inspiration movie of the year. Maybe ever. There is uplift in almost every frame. From Richard’s unswerving support for all his children and Oracene’s ability to always know the right thing to say, to Venus and Serena’s journey to the top in a sport typically dominated by white people, the movie exists in a tidal wave of heart-warming emotion.
It is occasionally cloying but Smith, in a career best performance, finds the complexities in Richard’s character. To call him single-minded is an understatement. “You are the most stubborn man I ever met,” says Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), “and I coach John McEnroe.”
In real life the press asked aloud if Richard was a dreamer or a huckster, but the film digs deeper to reveal a man whose worldview was formed by childhood trauma. He wants his kids to have the childhood he never did, one filled with love, achievement and safety. Some of his most baffling decisions, in terms of the advancement of their careers, are rooted in his desire to protect his daughters, not exploit them.
When Venus wants to go pro at age 14, he tells her that decision is about more than the game. She will be representing “every little Black girl on earth,” he says, and he wants to protect her from that burden for as long as he can.
Smith is both cocky and vulnerable in the role, using his trademarked charisma in a different way. His usual swager is gone, replaced by determination and obstinance, and it’s a fascinating character study.
Smith is surrounded by a terrific cast whose naturalistic performances set the tone for this family drama.
“King Richard” doesn’t reinvent the film biopic wheel. Characters still make big pronouncements like, “Forget Ali and Frazier. If she wins this will be the biggest upset in the history of sports,” and it follows a linear path, but the indelible message of the power of family resonates.