There’s something truly uplifting and motivational about a good sports biopic drama, as audiences are immersed into a first person account documenting the rise of outstanding athletes as they overcome all odds. Will Smith returns to the genre following his take on iconic boxer Muhammad Ali, to portray one of the famous amateur US tennis coaches who orchestrated the careers of two of the most iconic sisters in tennis.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard centres on Richard Williams (Will Smith), father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, and how he, and his wife (Aunjanue Ellis), coached and guided the sisters to become two of the greatest athletes to date.
This is a truly inspirational sport biopic which plays out more as a family drama, packed full of heart and warm earnestness. Initially it’s surprising that a film documenting the two sister’s rise to greatness is told from the lens of their father, however it’s important to see how much he, and his wife, sacrificed to support the pair and give their family a better life. The stirring story is elevated from the usual underdog genre beats by exploring how the family overcame adversity, classicism and underlying racism/gatekeeping in the sport, to change the game forever. Richard’s persistence, drive and motivation is illustrated by the measured pacing throughout, highlighting that that their success wasn’t an overnight deal, with a 78-page plan in place to raise two champion tennis stars.
Will Smith encapsulates the enigmatic father with an impressively transformative performance, which will undoubtedly garner plenty of Oscar buzz. He captures his accent and mannerisms, and the dynamic he shares with co-stars Sidney and Singleton is full of emotion, particularly in the more quieter moments. Interestingly, Green doesn’t hold back from showing the father’s darker, balancing his endless hustle, drive and conflicts with surprising intent and shocking ego. Despite his failings and unorthodox methods, it’s refreshing to see him portrayed as a protective father as opposed to a pushy ‘sporting’ parent – allowing his children to enjoy their childhood and gain an education, rather than pushing them into endless competitions and the limelight.
However its newcomers Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who truly shine as the young and gifted trailblazers, exhibiting phenomenal grit, determination and talent throughout their fantastic arcs. While the film focuses predominantly more on the rise of Venus, who initially paved the way for Serena to shine, the two both share an infectious joy for the sport and a real dynamic warmth towards Smith and their family – rising above the outside perceived perceptions. Support comes from the charismatic and ever endearing Jon Bernthal, along with a powerhouse of a performance from Aunjanue Ellis. Richard often takes the praise for the sister’s training and at times makes rash decisions for them, until Ellis’ long-suffering Oracene is pushed too far and makes a blistering and hugely emotive speech on how much sacrifice women often make to help their children’s dreams a reality.
Robert Elswit’s cinematography makes for a great looking and engaging watch with a certain warmth thanks to a soft colour palette. Pamela Martin’s editing excels, particularly in the numerous impressive tennis matches, making for a tense experience – especially with the crescendo of a score. The film builds up to a wonderfully re-enacted staging of Venus’s 1994 professional debut at the age of 14, as she faced the world number two, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario – as Green’s measured pacing keeps you on the edge of your seat. Beyoncé powerful and uplifting end-credits track “Be Alive” is another real highlight, perfectly paired with the heartwarming real documented footage of the family, along with the accomplishments that the Williams have achieved to date.
King Richard is a triumphant and joyful crowdpleaser which features a number of phenomenal performances, spearheaded by a transformative Will Smith and the hugely charming newcomers Saniyya Sidney & Demi Singleton.