KING RICHARD— 4 STARS
There’s an early exchange of dialogue in King Richard where Will Smith’s titular father, using handmade brochures and camcorder-captured VHS highlight videos, is pitching his two potential tennis prodigy daughters to an older white owner of a tennis club. The snobbish man is barely listening and doing a book cover judgment of the hand-me-down exterior that misses the underlying athletic potential. He declines Richard Williams, and, with no visible rattle of defeat and without missing a beat, Richard says, “You’re making a mistake, but I’ll let you make it.”
I love that line. It’s but a sample of the bet-on-yourself levels of confidence that permeate from this rousing movie. That line can also be taken as a piece of advice lobbed to potential audiences who either skip or dismiss King Richard in theaters or on HBO Max. You’ll be missing out on a true winner that every teenager in this country, regardless of their creed, color, gender, or social status, should see with ready-to-seed dreams.
LESSON #1: “IF YOU FAIL TO PLAN, YOU PLAN TO FAIL”— The confidence of Richard Williams began with written master plans, touted to be in upwards of 80 pages, that laid out specific tracks of training, education, and achievement for each of his children. A posterboard sign of this lesson’s quote would be hung and recited with every public court practice session. Throw in a “worry about what you’re doing and not others,” and the logic of that statement couldn’t be more sound. The challenge, however, would become the faith others, both observers and stakeholders, would have in his narrow, ambitious, and commanding plans.
Like all legends, Venus and Serena Williams, played remarkably by Saniyya Sidney of Hidden Figures and newcomer Demi Singleton, have their undistinguished beginnings of hard work and formative humility. For much of their childhoods, they were raised in Compton, California during the Rodney King era of racial prejudice and urban violence. Even while working nights, gleaning tips from old magazines, scrounging for resources, and networking the closed doors of the professional coaching ladder, Richard and his wife Oracene Price (Aunjunae Ellis of The Birth of a Nation) never missed putting the girls through thorough and demanding practices.
In a different movie, predictable screenwriting would have one or both of the girls develop a contrary streak of complaining. Some teen actors would get a scene where the FOMO would come out for some inconsequential enjoyment outside of tennis or offer a petulant monologue to be ridden of the perceived trapping hardship orchestrated by their overbearing father. In what will be strange for many viewers and parents of child athletes, you will not find that predictable trend in King Richard.
These two young ladies are as driven as their dad to push back skepticism, and they’ll will speak on that shared resolve when given the opportunity. That determination comes out in brave performances from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton that go beyond sport stunt skills and striking physical resemblances to the real people. Why? Because they’re still regular girls at heart. See the next lesson.
LESSON #2: LET KIDS BE KIDS— Even with lofty and odds-defying goals, Richard and Oracene balanced the quest for athletic prowess with the supporting pillars of church, academics, and culture. They raised valedictorians and multilingual speakers with the same emphasis and insistence as they raised the next two Michael Jordans of their chosen sport. This dedication was guidance towards eventual life after tennis (because it could end at any moment) and protection against the competitive stresses that consumed superstars that came before them. It’s a brake-pumping lesson too many zealous and over-scheduling parents are missing nowadays in a child sports scene that has come rampant and elitist.
Fitting of the setting, plenty of the tried-and-true sports movie tropes are still present in King Richard. In their journey, the Williams’ connects with a pair of coach archetypes (a strict Tony Goldwyn and a hyped Jon Bernthal) that marvel at the talent before them but still push the traditional paths of success that go against Richard’s designs. Comeuppances of patience and wisdom await them (and moviegoers) towards an anticipated and pivotal “final game” sequence. Composer Kris Bowers (Respect, Green Book) offers cues that push the subgenre’s kinetic melodrama while Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit brings a world class lens to shoot the sport of tennis better than anyone has before him.
What separates King Richard from the typical pile of inspirational sports movies is its enormous emphasis on family. Much like director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s previous film Joe Bell, this is a parent’s story first. Coupled with a physical transformation to match Richard’s speech and gait, Will Smith offers an indomitable performance that is among the best of his career. His fingerprinted spirit fills every tick and tirade. With all his mature star power, Will also shows courage to not shy away from the prideful flaws of the Richard Williams character.
It would have been very convenient for writer Zack Baylin to skip the ugliness and make King Richard self-gratifying for a quack of a man waiting to tell people he told them so. Instead, it’s the strong woman next to him that calls out the wrongs, circling back to Lesson #1. Aunjunae Ellis is an award-worthy rock of restrained strength that is equally steely for the aforementioned desires for protection and guidance. Her and Smith share a kitchen squabble battle that will knock your socks off and be their mutual Oscar nomination reel.
LESSON #3: WORTHY HERO WORSHIP— Almost predictably, some folks are not going to key into the bold messages of King Richard. What’s cloying for some is exactly the rightful heft and positive intentions for others. Even if the movie is too long in its gradual sculpture of its future stars, the movie means to inspire and has the perfect popular subjects for celebration to do just that. King Richard will mean something, and that’s the greater success than filmmaking. There’s too much good truth to share, both in the biographical department and in the familial saga of prime life lessons. Once again, passing on it all would be a mistake.