Awards Season Chasing Oscar 2022 Movies

‘King Richard’ Burnishes the Legacies of the Williams Sisters

An exceptional Will Smith leads this crowd-pleasing drama about the two tennis legends.

How does one raise not one legend but two?

Venus and Serena Williams are so embedded in the public consciousness that it’s easy to undervalue their story. Growing up during their transition from junior prodigies into professional tennis icons, I didn’t pay much attention to where they came from or how they reached the pinnacle of athleticism; frankly, all that mattered was that they were Black, thriving in a predominantly white sport.

But it does matter where legends come from, the support systems they did or didn’t have, and how their excellence bloomed to an unprecedented level of dominance. Cliched as it may be, their stories inspire and encourage the next generation to achieve and improve on what was considered possible.

King Richard is very much the Williams sisters’ story, even though it bears their father’s name. Some may find the framing strange and perhaps anti-feminist. The film (and, by extension, Venus and Serena, given they executive produced it) explains just how critical their father and the Williams family were to the girls’ boundary-breaking success. Will Smith plays Richard Williams, a man from Compton who knows he has two gifted tennis champions in his home and will move heaven and hell until everyone knows it. The barriers to tennis for Venus and Serena are sky-high: they are Black women, lower-to-middle class, and lack connections and resources. However, Richard’s dogged determination, fierce protection of his children, and devout faith pave the path that the girls will ultimately sprint down.

That isn’t to say the path is smooth or that Richard is the perfect bricklayer. King Richard remarkably doesn’t fall into the traps of many biopics with direct subject involvement. The film respects Richard and his contributions to Venus and Serena’s success, but it doesn’t make excuses for his mistakes. He has a powerful ego, he ignores the advice of experts in favor of his “grand plan,” he underestimates his warm but steel-nerved wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), and he takes advantage of people trying to help them. He makes choices on behalf of his girls that are mind-boggling and sometimes ludicrous. Still, even at his worst, you never lose sight of how deeply Richard believes in Venus and Serena and how that confidence grounded their inherent gifts.

Demi Singleton, Will Smith, and Saniyya Sidney in King Richard (courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Reinaldo Marcus Green weaves Richard’s influence throughout King Richard without losing sight of Venus and Serena. They aren’t present in every scene, and there are plenty of moments that focus squarely on Richard, but you feel how each decision is considered with them in mind, particularly to preserve their youth and mental health. Just as impressive is how Green expands the film’s scope to explore the dynamics of the Williams family. It would be too much (at nearly 2-and-a-half hours, it already is pushing the limits) to give each daughter a storyline. However, you get a sense of how the Williamses work as a complete unit, and how their wants and needs feed into the community that Richard and Oracene built. 

“Community” is a keyword here, as Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin structure King Richard around the different communities that the Williams family navigate. The lily-white country clubs, the rough streets of Compton, Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal) training grounds, and the Banks of the West tournament court all carry some physical or spiritual risk, and the film makes each one palpable. The film ultimately positions family as the safest and most fulfilling community, especially when another causes harms. It is a heartwarming sentiment in any case, but having a Black family communicate it in a sports film feels uniquely profound. The joy you feel just watching the Williams family cheer on the sidelines is immense, even more than watching the girls score points.

Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard (courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures)

As important as family and community are to King Richard, the film’s success rests on Will Smith’s shoulders and whether you buy him as the Williams patriarch. Smith doesn’t disappears into roles; he is too charismatic a presence. Instead, his best parts either lean into or subvert his wisecracking nice guy persona in compelling ways. There are shades of Smith in his portrayal of Richard: the fast-talking salesman spirit, the way he commands a frame, how he wears his emotions on his sleeve. What sets Richard apart from other Smith roles is the weariness, skepticism, and fear behind his eyes. Smith imbues Richard with his trademark energy, pouring it into his family, but also slyly conveys that the source is inconsistent and could run out. It adds another layer of tension to the film: will Richard will finally snap or collapse after years of always being on? It’s a question you could also ask Smith, after three decades in the public eye. His willingness to engage in that conversation contributes significantly to this being his most compelling performance in over a decade, and likely the one that will land him the one thing that has evaded him thus far: an Academy Award.

Smith isn’t alone in deserving recognition for their work in King Richard. Aunjanue Ellis is excellent as Oracene, tempering Smith’s energy with a potent mix of will and compassion that makes crossing her feel like a terrible life choice. She is calm and quiet, but can release her power with startling quickness. She’s one of the few people who can easily pull focus from Smith, making an impression that exceeds her character’s presence in the film. Saniyya Sidney’s take on Venus Williams is excellent, perfectly capturing her self-confidence and its clashes with adolescent self-doubt. If someone disappears into a role in this film, it’s Jon Bernthal, who is nearly unrecognizable and delightful as the constantly exasperated but genuinely well-meaning elite coach Macci.

King Richard is a rousing celebration of two once-in-a-lifetime talents and the village that raised them. The film resists canonization, instead offering a compelling case for the Williams dynasty to be as revered as others in the sports world, if they weren’t already. At the very least, King Richard earns the right to burnish the legend of Venus and Serena, and remind us of the power of Will Smith.

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