The very niche genre of sports-related movies is typically reserved for inspiring films about the sportsmanship of football, the camaraderie of baseball, or about taking a shot at basketball, but far and few between are the films that center around tennis. Regardless of what demographic you fall into, when you think of tennis, you most likely think of Venus and Serena Williams. They are, without a doubt, the most famous tennis players of this generation and their names are now synonymous with the sport. But few outsiders to the tennis world know about their upbringing or the man that ensured that we would all know their names one day.
I know that some might balk at the fact that Venus and Serena’s story is being told through a biopic about their father, but it was his tenacity, persistence, and planning that got them to the point where their skills were recognized. Richard Williams’ story strikes right at the heart of parents who sacrifice everything to ensure that their children are afforded the opportunity to thrive—who tirelessly strive to help them rise above poverty and adversity.
You absolutely do not have to know anything about tennis to enjoy King Richard. Honestly, I had my reservations going into this movie because tennis is not a sport I am particularly interested in, but I walked out of the theater with a newfound respect for the sport and admiration for Richard Williams’ determination. While their neighbors in Compton may want to see Williams as a difficult and strict parent, Will Smith goes to great lengths to show him as a goal-oriented father who knows the worth of his daughters and refuses to settle for less.
Smith gives—what should be—an award-winning performance as Williams, capturing his frustrating personality and his dedication as a father. He has been nominated twice for an Academy Award, but this performance could very easily earn him his first win. His emotional depths carry the entire plot and his performance keeps you fully engrossed in the story.
Richard Williams was quite the character. Before his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) were born, he laid out an 85-page plan for their future pro-tennis playing careers, including accurately predicting that Venus would be the first one to succeed, but ultimately Serena would become the larger of the two brilliant stars. But it wasn’t just his parenting that got them to where they are today, and the film makes a point of giving credit where credit is due to his wife Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis).
Unlike most of the biopics I’ve seen in the last year, King Richard never lingered too long on any period of time. It kept a steady pace as the story unfolded, moving the audience towards the finish line in the process. The director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, and cinematographer, Robert Elswit, smartly utilized clever transitions to keep the movie fresh each time we jumped ahead in these early years of Venus and Serena’s career. As a whole, this film utilized a lot of beautiful shots, both in the quiet moments and during the heart-pumping tennis matches.
Venus and Serena aren’t forgotten whatsoever, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton give incredibly strong performances as the sisters, showing off their own tennis-playing talents and showcasing their acting abilities. The pair work incredibly well opposite one another, as well as with their other sisters Tunde (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew), Isha (Danielle Lawson), and Lyndrea (Layla Crawford), and the adult cast.
In addition to the core cast, Jon Bernthal gives an incredibly strong performance as Venus’ coach Rick Macci. There were so many opportunities for Rick to be an asshole—especially when jumping through hoops with Richard Williams—but Bernthal played him in a very open and earnest way.
King Richard is, ultimately, a truly American story. As a country that prides itself on stories about pulling oneself up by your bootstraps, Richard Williams’ story is one for the history books. He had a vision for his daughters and he did everything in his power to ensure that those dreams came true, not just for himself, but for them, and for generations of young women to come. This is one of the few times it works to focus on a man at the center of two women’s stories. It is a smart and engaging film about so much more than sports and sportsmanship. Very easily an instant classic in the halls of sports cinema.
King Richard is in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max.