Richard Williams (Will Smith) is obsessed with tennis. He doesn’t really play it, mind—he has some unspecified trouble with his feet, evidenced by his quietly lopsided gait, and he didn’t grow up with the sport, as he’s told almost every great player must. But Richard dresses the part, only occasionally seen without his slightly too-short shorts and polo shirt, and makes sure his daughters live and breathe tennis, which means practicing hard, every day, even in the rain, wherever they can. It’s all part of a multi-page, multi-decade plan worth of Dignan from Bottle Rocket, only with loftier goals: Raise the best tennis players of all time. It would sound like a maniacal pipe dream, if not for the fact that Richard’s daughters are Serena and Venus Williams.
That’s how Richard refers to Venus—as “Venus Williams,” though sometimes she’s also “Junior.” In King Richard, she’s well-played by Saniyya Sidney, opposite an equally capable Demi Singleton as Serena. Regardless, this is not really their movie. The future greats, portrayed here during their tween and early teen years, have a handful of scenes to themselves—especially Venus, who rises to prominence a little ahead of her sister—while never wresting the film away from Smith’s Richard.
That’s all part of the movie’s novel design. By viewing the Williams sisters’ early years through their father, King Richard finds a different angle on the underdog sports biopic, emphasizing a real-life “character” who might be a colorful scene-stealer in a more conventionally written film. In this telling, being an exacting and stubborn stage parent is its own kind of bizarre athletic feat.
The re-centering of a story about two superstar women of color to venerate their father might justifiably raise some eyebrows, though it’s worth noting that Venus and Serena seem to approve; they’re credited as two of many executive producers here. (Maybe zeroing in on Richard offers a welcome change for the sisters, after years in the direct spotlight.) That said, the family’s approval may have inhibited a truly complicated portrait. Within the bounds of inspirational drama, King Richard boasts some appropriately rousing climactic matches—and not all with the expected outcomes. But the fresher aspect of the movie looks at Richard’s parenting style, combining elements of coach-ready pep talks, old-school-dad lectures, and managerial wheeling and dealing (or, more often, wheeling-and-refusing-to-dealing).
Smith brings his usual tenacity to all of this talk, while replacing his movie-star idiosyncrasies with some new vocal ones, complete with a Louisiana accent. For a while, King Richard grapples with a fascinating potential contradiction: how an obsessive, flawed, sometimes impossible taskmaster may have sensitively nurtured the kind of athletic brilliance that can look preternatural.
The movie isn’t reluctant to point out when Richard is running roughshod over everyone in his path. These objections are most often and reasonably voiced by his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), whose own parenting (and breadwinning) contributes plenty without making quite so much noise, and by tennis coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who takes on the girls at great expense, only to find plenty of stipulations Richard left out of their contract. Does Richard’s insistence that his girls maintain a “normal” childhood, while still subjecting them to the rigor of demanding all-A report cards and constant tennis drills, qualify as unique discipline or a desire for complete control?
That tight control certainly plays better via Smith’s natural charisma, even in humbled form. Despite his grandiosity, Richard is all too aware of his low economic station in life, which brings to mind Smith’s similarly grabby performance in The Pursuit Of Happyness. Richard also recalls that smash with a handful of ill-advised dips into respectability politics, directing equal ire towards white tennis parents throwing snits and less privileged characters like a nosy neighbor or an intimidating gang member who meets a violent yet convenient end. If only, the movie implies, these flatly rendered supporting characters had a Richard Williams in their lives, drilling them into submission and possibly greatness.
Even if the movie isn’t actively trying to shame other families, it’s a single-minded parenting narrative; director Reinaldo Marcus Green (last seen crafting a far more questionable star-as-real-life vehicle) appears to have been tasked with building a movie around the inevitable end-credits vindication of Richard’s familial decisions. Before it gets there, characters are allowed side references to Richard bullshitting about deals and some unfinished family business. It’s another batch of acknowledgments that the Williams patriarch is not a pure, saintly, unsullied tennis visionary, and Smith plays his notes of pain and desperation skillfully. Yet the movie keeps enough of Richard’s messy past off screen to feel like a hagiography with a few concessions, rather than a true warts-and-all portrait. King Richard is engrossing as it plays out, but the heat of its emotions cool off quickly. There’s only so much a movie can do with repeated exaltations that father sure does know best.