For three decades the Williams sisters have captivated the tennis world – and now they’re primed to do the same on the big screen. Or, at least their story is – or I should say their father’s story.
“King Richard” opened the fourth year of Film Fest 919 on Tuesday, telling the story of Richard Williams, the charismatic and iron-willed coach and father of Venus and Serena. The Drive-In at Carraway was filled with cars and fans eager to catch a glimpse of Will Smith in the leading role – one that has already been dubbed worthy of the next Best Actor Oscar – and neither he, nor the film, disappointed.
Despite growing up during the Williams sisters’ prime I had missed out on the story of their upbringing and introduction to the world of sport. While that may have been ignorance on my part, it works in the favor of “King Richard,” and I’d wager many moviegoers are in the same boat. The knowledge of Venus and Serena’s greatness as a whole, as well as the understanding that their father helped drive them to achieve their current status, provided more than enough familiarity on the front end to allow the film to feel exciting and informative as it fills in the missing pieces.
“King Richard” takes us back to the beginning – to a time when Richard Williams (Smith) knew he had greatness in his household. For the five daughters under his roof with wife Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Ellis), mediocrity is not an option. Whether it’s education, religion, family or tennis, Williams ensures his daughters are always pushed to be their best – none more so than Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Whether they’re practicing in a downpour or trekking across town to top facilities, Richard gives his all to his two tennis prodigies.
But in order to be the best, the girls have to be coached by the best – and that means Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). While Rick may be the best coach in the world, he’s not the King, and that’s the only person that matters when it comes to Venus and Serena – and Richard is not quick to give up his power over his daughters’ futures.
Smith’s portrayal of Richard is worthy of all the awards season praise he is rightfully receiving. Bringing to life a character who is simultaneously the biggest person in the room and the most insecure is no easy feat, yet Smith’s charisma and talent makes it seem like a breeze. The two-time Oscar nominee flexes his entire range here, alternating from charmingly earnest to frustratingly stubborn as seamlessly as a volley at Wimbledon. While I’ll always be biased to his performance in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith is more than due for an Oscar win, and this would be a worthy conduit to make it happen.
Beyond Smith’s stellar leading role, “King Richard” feels like a fairly traditional, familiar sports drama. That’s not meant as a slight at all, and in this case, it works to the film’s benefit. When the characters, performers and subject matter are as compelling as what’s found in “King Richard,” there’s no use overcomplicating things. It plays the hits when it comes to a sports drama – the early training days and the competitive setback, all leading up to the big match – but it manages to add a bit of nuance in its final act to help it from feeling too familiar.
The only significant complaint for “King Richard” relates to its 138-minute runtime. It feels every minute of that length and could use with a bit of tightening. Sure, it’s a movie about tennis, so it’s bound to have, well, tennis. But it doesn’t really need that much tennis, as most of the drama occurs off the court, save for the final match. Trimming a few practice sequences here and a match montage there would go a long way towards making this an instant sports classic.
While it may not cement itself as a first-ballot sports movie hall of famer, “King Richard” is certainly a worthy entry. It knows how to let its stars and feel-good story do all the heavy lifting — and when you’ve got one of Will Smith’s very best performances, that’s more than enough.
“King Richard” releases in theaters and on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.