Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
When you sign up to watch a sports drama, you basically resign yourself to the fact that you’re probably not going to see anything new. The specific sport, characters and challenges may vary, yet we still detect the formula. This is because every possible narrative arc has been tried, tested and perfected. Films like Rocky (1976), Any Given Sunday (1999), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Moneyball (2004), Rush (2013), 42 (2013) and many more have pretty much covered everything the genre has to offer. Therefore, many sports films live or die by how seamlessly they fit into the already established tropes. With that in mind, King Richard (2021) enjoyably uses the Williams sisters’ upbringing to create a mostly satisfying watch.
We are introduced to Richard Williams (Will Smith), a hardworking resident of Compton Los Angeles and father of five. Richard has been disrespected, discriminated against and beaten down almost his entire life, which is a fate he doesn’t wish upon his children. In order to ensure a better life for his family, Richard takes his youngest daughters, Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton), to the tennis court every day with the intention of building them into champions. Despite encountering some resistance from the locals, it doesn’t take long for Venus and Serena to attract the attention of professional coaches. As their reputation grows, so does Richard’s unconventionally overbearing parenting, as he conflicts with his wife, industry professionals and the sisters themselves.
Despite tennis being one of the most globally popular sports, it’s rarely represented on film in comparison to boxing, baseball, football or racing. Even if viewers aren’t experts, film history has taught us everything we need to know about fight rules, ball games and so on. The storytelling shorthand for tennis, its rules and its industry details aren’t as refined, meaning King Richard has to dedicate a hefty amount of its runtime to explaining them. Happily, this task is easily accomplished, as there’s plenty of visual cues which provide the necessary context for the uninitiated. These moments ride the line perfectly between being noticeable and subtle, thus never distracting the viewer from the main story. In fact, we are more easily engaged due to us understanding the world in which the characters operate.
Consequently, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s direction is sure-handed enough to package this tennis based story into a clean narrative. At 145 minutes long, King Richard could’ve easily overstayed its welcome, but Green skilfully controls the pacing, thus keeping the viewer engaged. With these true life stories, it can be difficult to spin a traditional three act structure, but Green manages to do so without needing to force unnecessary drama. Additionally, the camerawork, edit and script rarely slip up, making King Richard an easily enjoyable watch from a production standpoint. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen 100 times before, but it perfectly meets the expectations of a strong sports film and never falls into self-parody.
The most widely discussed element of the film is of course Will Smith’s performance as Richard Williams. Smith has always been a likeable star and has always been capable of melting into a role, but his recent offerings have all fallen into his typecast persona. Thankfully, his work here does represent a return to transformative acting, as he almost disappears behind Richard Williams. It may not be his all time greatest performance, but it definitely ticks all the boxes for a Best Actor Oscar win, for which he is currently the favourite. Interestingly, it’s actually Aunjanue Ellis who steals the entire film as Oracene “Brandy” Price, delivering a powerhouse performance with only a handful of scenes. More so than Smith, Ellis will probably be the true MVP of King Richard in the long run.
Fact based stories often cover a lot of time and ground, yet it’s a good idea to distill the narrative down to a focused thematic arc. King Richard centres on concepts of personal and external expectations, ambition, parenting, individuality and cultural inspiration. While that is certainly a lot to work with, Green manages to make these ideas feel organic and complimentary. The film is at its best when it focuses on these elements, but that doesn’t stop it from getting slightly distracted in other areas. To be fair, the ancillary themes it brings up are unavoidably tied to the characters’ circumstances and definitely needed to be addressed. With that in mind, King Richard could’ve been even stronger if these layers were integrated further than just a cursory mention. This isn’t a huge issue though, as it’s just another interesting thing for the viewers to think about.
The real flaw with King Richard is ironically similar to the criticism levelled at Richard Williams himself, in that it can be sometimes hard to accept the film’s implied message. This is a story about a man who trained his children practically from birth to be tennis stars, followed by him learning to let go and allow his daughters to make their own decisions. With that in mind, it doesn’t fully ring true when the sisters are given that chance, as it still feels like their decisions are being controlled by Richard. Not only that, but you get an odd feeling when you consider that the tennis championships are actually the sisters’ achievements, not Richard’s. Regardless, the film is framed around Richard’s achievement in training them, as opposed to being framed around the girls’ agency. It’s a strange contradiction which can’t be avoided when the film is designed as a performance piece for Will Smith.
Overall, King Richard still works as an enjoyable, inspirational and well made sports drama. Tennis has been lacking strong representation in film, so it’s nice to see the sport represented at an A-list level. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s sure to get the blood pumping and the heart beating.
Best way to watch it: In a marathon with Will Smith’s Ali (2001).