‘King Richard’ review: Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis score in a story full of lobs and love [Grade: B+]
We don’t always remember the person who planted the fruit we eat, or the source of the water we drink. Credit can be forgotten to be given where it’s due, in other words. But tennis powerhouses and sisters Venus & Serena Williams have ensured the opposite will happen here, in the first feature-length project they’ve executive produced. To know who is behind their ascent, you will only need to read the title.
With little doubt, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is the epicenter of King Richard, a winsome biopic about the father and the pursuer of happiness of the renowned sisters. Although focusing on him lets writer Zach Baylin gain a new look into Venus & Serena’s winning journey, the final destination is still the same—the one where the “Venus & Serena” prompt will cue “queens of tennis” as a corresponding response. As it has been in reality. It then becomes reasonable to believe that Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green are leaning less on the plotting and more on the players, ultimately still a wise move as everyone in the main ensemble knows how to serve up their best form and then strike it forward.
Again, with little doubt, King Richard is a venue with the name of whomever playing him centered and bolded on the glowing marquee—in this case, Smith’s. It’s a very real possibility that said name can not live up to its emphasis, but not today. The star’s palpable immersion into the role asserts that he is where he’s positioned, the answer to why you are lining up around the block. Smith may share more likeness to Richard Williams in speech than appearance, at the time when Venus (a radiating Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (a resolute Demi Singleton) are young adolescents, though he still channels ounce-by-ounce his real counterpart’s adoration, support and firmness being a patriarch, a coach and a shield. That many hats are necessary because the current world of the Williams—in Compton with catcalling boys, constant sirens, references to drugs and one drive-by shooting—is most unkind for future women movers and shakers. And Venus and Serena are such women, he believes. Venus first, in fact, takes much of the runtime as Richard prioritizes the elder sister’s path to glory, beginning with her competing in the junior leagues, debuting professionally at 14, training with Jennifer Capriati all the way in Florida and facing off Arantxa Sánchez Vicario at the climax.
Yet the world beyond isn’t all that bright either, even if it’s the spot where Richard would like his daughters to swing. “This family is from the ghet-to,” he says with a “I-know-what-you’re-thinking” cheekiness to the white male coaches he’s meeting in the opening montage, hoping they can look past certain stereotypes to, like him, sign Venus and Serena into the big leagues. The self-deprecation brings levity to the moment, and Smith nails it as always—it’s second nature for him, but here there is visible fear. Only a sliver, but visible nonetheless. Remember, he is requesting assistance from the community that back then considered the act a transgression. This is the same community whose members reflexively undermine, say “no” often (but dislike being said “no” to), believe if a person didn’t grow up with it they can’t master it, reserve more of their mouth to taste the cigar rather than converse (check out Dylan McDermott as club owner Will Hodges during a PR meeting with Richard), et cetera—and yet they are the keepers of the keys to the gates where the sisters’ future in the sport resides. In these sequences, chiefly those with the taut coach Paul Cohen (an aptly stern Tony Goldwyn) and then his attitudinal opposite Rick Macci (a cheery, mustachioed Jon Bernthal), it’s a consistent thrill seeing Smith as a Richard who is performing the most crucial balancing act ever—one that could impact himself and his loved ones—but has to exude firm-footedness throughout.
Speaking of loved ones, do not forget the household’s matriarch in King Richard. Despite the directness of the path to the wife-slash-humanizer trappings on which writer Baylin has placed Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Ellis of If Beale Street Could Talk and HBO’s Watchmen), her cinematic version can still surprise; Ellis’ navigation of her role is so skillful to the point she’s a bona fide scene-stealer. In executing his “78-page plan” for Venus and Serena, an element highlighted in many promos but the film chooses not to build around, Richard can be too exacting and contradictory. Sometimes letting the sisters be carefree youths doesn’t mesh with being fearsome competitors. He might forget there is a dad inside the coach, and vice versa. Ensuing fires and rifts, all uncalled for. It is Brandy who keeps him in check, offering refreshers through either impactful words or pure presence. She lets Richard know that, while the vision is mighty, the one doing the envisioning is only human—and that is all right. At times his or the kids’ actions will not be paired with fanfare—and that, too, is all right. Amid these moments of friction, Ellis will light up the screen the most, or with the same lumens as Smith; her performance allows the scars from the familial chafing to be fresh in viewers’ minds when Baylin’s writing and Green’s direction tend to gloss over them.
Why must they be kept? As admirable as Richard’s push to manifest the best future for Venus and Serena is, he can unwittingly rob the girls of their agency, of their trajectory. As Brandy, Ellis shows that is not a non-issue. Venus and Serena’s moves will shake the world, sure, but thanks to her, if only implicitly, Richard shall realize the first ones to feel that impact are those of their three half-sisters—Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Danielle Lawson and Layla Crawford; Isha is also an executive producer). They, too, are nourishing their own barrier-breaking dreams, in healthcare and academia, so it’s best to set an example that they do have ownership of them. In that sense, Ellis’ character isn’t only here to humanize but also to harmonize. Should King Richard feel overwhelmed, and he will since current systems are built to do so to people like him—or prying eyes, like those of the neighboring Ms. Strickland (Erika Ringor), who out of the blue think they know what’s best, Queen Brandy is more than capable to help out. Sometimes she can have him by her side, sometimes she alone will suffice.
In tennis, a good match can be had just through consistent rallying, no need for any novel tricks or dazzling tactics. King Richard is exactly that. It’s no detriment: sustaining the toing and froing of the felt ball requires the players to be skilled, and to apply this to the film nets you the fact its performers’ accomplishments are substantial. This is Smith’s finest dramatic hour, and it is with hope he will bring Ellis along to celebrate. Seeing how Green and company’s film is a tribute to the supporters in our lives, or those who believe we are champions at birth, the King should recognize his Queen. After all, in real life, Oracene “Brandy” Price is no sidekick in the (now successful) campaign to turn Venus and Serena into two royalties of the sport, two excellences of their people and two icons of their gender.
King Richard volleys into theaters and HBO Max on November 19 from Warner Bros.