I had initial trepidation going into King Richard, the story of how Venus and Serena Williams’ father, Richard Williams, planned their tennis careers our sheer determination to make them successful. But that trepidation vanished when I realized the legendary tennis sisters were executive producers on the movie. This way, it seems less like female success being co-opted onto a man, and feels so much more like the Williamses honoring their father, for whom they obviously have a massive deal of gratitude, love, and respect. The end result is a well-done family sports flick that probably wouldn’t garner much extra praise and adoration were it not for Will Smith’s performance as the influential patriarch.
Smith fully commits to this role and it’s clear that he’s going for the Oscar that he didn’t win for Ali or The Pursuit of Happyness, and wasn’t nominated for with Concussion. He does the kind of playing-a-real-person performance that I think really stands out — he’s not doing a prolonged impression i.e. Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. While his daughters do obviously get their chance to shine, the focus is really on Richard, though it’s not sugarcoated. He can be pushy, overbearing, stubborn, and even selfish, but it’s all for the good of his kids (most likely — that’s where the selfishness comes in). He, and by extension, his daughters, is an easy character to root for.
Oddly, the best I feel like I can say about King Richard apart from Smith’s performance is that it is astonishingly competent from beginning to end. Nothing really stands out as being extremely well-done, yet there’s nothing about it that was done poorly. It’s competent, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies like this these days.
The tennis scenes are fun, the chemistry between Richard and his daughters is genuine, and there’s a positive tone which paints Richard in a good light. The movie just seems to gloss over anything difficult. They’re included — whether he pushes his daughters for their sake or for his own ego, the racial and class tensions in Compton in the ‘90s — but nothing is fully explored or pushed to the forefront. That’s obviously not so much what the movie was trying to explore, but when it was brought up, it piqued my interest, therefore leaving me somewhat disappointed at its subsequent brush to the side.
King Richard is very good. Not great. Not bad. Not transcendent. Very good. If it hadn’t been Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Richard’s wife Brandy and gives a forceful performance as well, this would have been your run-of-the-mill sports drama. But with them, the film is able to stand out, if even just a bit, from the rest and be a real heartwarming crowd-pleaser.