Game, set and match for Will Smith in tennis biopic "King Richard"
Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn, Andy Bean, Kevin Dunn and Craig Tate. Written by Zach Baylin. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Now playing at theatres everywhere. 145 minutes. PG
By my watch, it’s about 40 minutes into “King Richard” before future tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams finally exhibit “that magic” their father keeps raving about.
It’s a scene where the Williams sisters, played by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, win over a dismissive skeptic — one of many in the film — by slamming tennis balls in his astonished direction.
Prior to this, and for much of the rest of the movie, the story is more about Richard Williams, their dad and first coach.
Played by Will Smith, a lock for a Best Actor nomination and likely win at the next Oscars, where this film will undoubtedly loom large in multiple categories, Richard is a controlling parent and consummate hustler.
Sidney and Singleton are superb in their roles, for which they convincingly learned how to play tennis, but here they’re more supporting stars.
“King Richard” is inspiring and involving, based on truth, but it’s not a conventional sports biopic by any measure. And don’t make the mistake of calling it a “Cinderella story,” a cliché mocked within the film. If there’s one take-home message from the many homilies expressed, it’s that there's no substitute for hard work and believing in yourself.
Thrilling scenes of competition remind us of the power and the glory of the Williams sisters and how much they’ve dominated the game in the past quarter-century, knocking down racial barriers along the way.
But there’s a reason for the regal patriarchal title for this picture, which is set in the 1990s and directed with verve and humour by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”).
Richard Williams is depicted as very much the monarchical figure, despite his rumpled attire and the beat-up VW van he drives.
He has a 78-page action plan, written before Venus and Serena were born, to take his daughters “from prodigy to pro” in the white-dominated and money-ruled world of tennis. He can envision no other outcome than global triumph.
Crucially, Venus and Serena believe in themselves, too, and they’re willing to be pushed by their dad, even if they often feel like pushing back. (The real Venus and Serena are credited as executive producers of the film, so they must approve of this depiction of their dad.)
Richard is so single-minded and stubborn, a brick wall might call him unfair competition.
He’s willing to endure beatings from meddling gangbangers in their tough Compton neighbourhood of Los Angeles County where he lives with his wife, Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis), and their five daughters. He’ll do anything to maximize time on the rundown community tennis court where teenage Venus and her younger sister, Serena, practise daily.
Richard also insists they keep their grades up at school, go to church regularly, remain humble at all times and have fun — whatever that is — while pursuing the tennis dream he’s laid out for them.
Richard makes such rigorous demands on Venus and Serena, including workouts during a downpour, a busybody neighbour calls the cops on him, fearful that the training constitutes child abuse.
Smith plays Richard with shamanistic fervour yet retains the human touch the actor brings to all his roles.
Richard sees himself as a father doing what he thinks is right not just for his daughters, but for his family. He’s an extreme version of the parental support often seen not just in celebrity athlete biopics but also in real-world competitions.
Smith, one of the film’s producers, ensures he’s on camera a lot but also worthy of so much attention.
That’s easier said than done. The screenplay by Zach Baylin gives little by way of back story or motivation for Richard, apart from how he grew up “running from the Klan” in Louisiana and now wants his daughters to break racial barriers in the palest of competitive sports.
The many white naysayers Richard encounters as he seeks coaches and sponsors for his daughters use coded statements like “Ever think about basketball?” to indicate how unlikely it seems to them that Black athletes could ever excel at tennis.
Their behaviour is racist, but their skepticism has some justification. Richard constantly insults potential coaches and financial backers, while also making demands that conspire against the success he craves.
He wants a say in how and where Venus and Serena play. Richard is extremely reluctant to have his daughters compete on the junior circuit, the traditional path toward turning pro.
He argues the junior circuit will rob them of their childhood and burn them out before they get a chance to become the history-making champions he knows they will be.
Richard’s obstinate behaviour threatens to destroy the good will and also the financial, housing and training support provided by a top Florida coach, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who so far has been willing to endure Richard’s meddling and manoeuvring because he also believes in the talent of Venus and Serena. Bernthal, another strong member of the “King Richard” team, plays Macci as a volcano that looks benign but which might just erupt one day.
It’s hard to steal a movie from Will Smith, but co-star Aunjanue Ellis manages to do so often. Brandi lets her husband know his belligerence won’t fly within the family.
She also coaches her daughters, especially Serena, who finds herself in the shadow of Venus in the early going.
Brandi reminds Richard that she’s the brains behind some of the training techniques he takes credit for.
What’s more, she believes in her daughters just as much as he does: “You’re not the only dreamer in this family,” she declares.
The Queen has spoken and even King Richard must listen. 🌓
(This review originally appeared in the Toronto Star.)