Will Smith is on tip-top form in a lovingly made story about family and success that sets Venus and Serena's legend into stone.
Venus and Serena Williams have a barnstorming 122 singles titles between them. Their careers are widely regarded among the greatest of all tennis players and athletes, period. This iconic household rivalry is traced in the sports-biopic King Richard through the lens of their father, Richard Williams, who passionately and controversially drove the girls to the worldwide success. It makes for crowdpleasing, inspiring viewing.
The hotspot of this picture is Will Smith in the titular role. It may be too early to predict the awards season frontrunners, but this could be the year for the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to become the Fresh King of… the Oscars? Smith, constantly sporting short shorts, knee-high socks and red and yellow striped tops, is utterly believable as Richard; his diction and eccentric speech is matched by his perculiarities and swinging-arm posture. He errs on funny, conflicted and self-righteous; a monomaniac whose ‘plan’ to get Venus and Serena into the history books is both a meticulous exercise in control and a fortunate stroke of luck from some very risky gambles. Richard challenges the status-quo of tennis careers throughout, taking the two sisters out from matches for several years whilst also sticking a firm middle-finger to the notion that tennis is a ‘white’ sport.
Race permeates the script on numerous occasions. When asked which tennis star she wants to play like, a young Serena responds “well, I’d like other people to play like me.” The implication here is that she isn’t talking about technique but rather inspiring other black girls to want to play tennis. Richard also tells Venus before a match that she will be “representing every black girl on Earth.” This therefore makes the story far more compelling than a standard sports film: the ability for a poor, ghetto family from Compton to mould two champions is a feat in itself, but to mould two champions in a field that is predominantly white is why the story must be told. Richard may dominate the screentime and be the immovable backbone of the sisters’ success, but much is also made of their mother Brani Williams’ involvement in coaching them, as well as the girls’ own success in school, learning languages and being humble, loving people. The family is made up of fundamentally good people with fundamentally good intentions, making this an instantly connective film for all audiences.
The film’s content, likeability and relevance recalls Le Mans 66, another popular sports-biopic that made its sport seem accessible to everyone. The casting of Jon Bernthal in both also adds to the comparison; a fantastic character actor who elevates every film he’s in, Bernthal here plays the impassioned, often frustrated but ever supportive coach Rick Macci. It’s another solid performance for Bernthal, who has five films to be released this year. Elsewhere the smooth direction, gentle but elegant shot choices and credit song by Beyonce solidify it as an all round well made film besides its performances and content (the Original Song category seems a tight one for the future: Beyonce, vs Ariana Grande vs Billie Eilish will certainly be a mighty match-up). It may not earn its lengthy runtime or a rewatch, but it aces its empowering story with some great tennis action and respectable characters.
King Richard is in all UK cinemas now with a 12A certificate. Watch the trailer below: