Producers: Tim White, Trevor White and Will Smith Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green Screenplay: Zach Baylin Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Noah Bean, Andy Bean, Kevin Dunn, Dylan McDermott, Erika Ringor, Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Danielle Lawson, Layla Crawford, Craig Tate, Chase Del Rey, Jessica Wacnik, Christopher Wallinger and Vaughn W. Hebron Distributor: Warner Bros Pictures
Venus and Serena Williams may be the stars at tennis tournaments, but they play supporting roles to their father in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s calculatedly crowd-pleasing sports movie. We talk regularly of overbearing stage mothers, but in “King Richard” we get a portrait of what might be called a court father. Given the fact that three of the executive producers are Richard Williams’ daughters, it’s something of an airbrushed portrait—the equivalent of an authorized biography—though all the warts can’t be entirely removed, and a viewer might be moved to imagine what’s missing. Given that Will Smith is one of the producers (and his wife is another of the executive producers), moreover, it’s hardly surprising that the picture is also an unabashed star vehicle for him. But despite all the caveats those observations entail, on its own terms the movie succeeds as a simple if undoubtedly simplified tale of unexpected underdog triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.
Zach Baylin’s screenplay begins rather conveniently in the late eighties, when young Venus and Serena have become proficient tennis players under their father’s watchful (some, like a neighbor depicted in the film would say, dictatorial) eye, even though the public courts in Compton are hardly the best. The specifics of Richard’s past are left ambiguous—a few details are doled out later, but hardly enough for a full picture—and so are the elements of the “plan” he’d formulated for their career in tennis even before they were born, or how they’d responded at first to his regimentation.
But by the time Baylin introduces them, they (Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena), their sisters and Richard’s wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) are all thoroughly on board with his intent to make the girls champions. He realizes that he’s taken them as far as he can on his own, though, and has been seeking an established coach to take them on. Though a genial salesman, he fails to find anyone willing to bet on the girls’ chances until he entices Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to accept Venus as a pupil, though Richard remains unafraid to intrude on the lessons whenever he feels like it. It’s his plan, after all.
And he follows it when he thinks Cohen has done all he can for Venus. He opts to move the family to the Florida training center run by Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who’s exasperated by having to follow the dictates of Richard’s plan but is bulldozed by him. And though Venus’ professional debut in 1994 might not have gone precisely according Richard’s plan, it inaugurated a career for her—and her sister—that altered the sport in a major way. (The film ends with that 1994 match against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, who, unlike Richard, is not presented in a very positive light.)
As a result of its self-imposed chronological limits, “King Richard” is able to offer a portrait of Williams père that’s upbeat, even inspiring—a characterization that Smith certainly exploits with a performance that suggests the Fresh Prince at fifty, still sassy and self-confident but a bit hunched-over and crotchety. Occasional dark patches are allowed to intrude, not only in some of Richard’s chance remarks about his childhood but in outbursts that the generally supportive Oracene delivers when stressed by her husband’s stubbornness, as well as in an episode involving a Compton gangsta (Vaughn W. Hebron) that prompts him to contemplate violence until fate abruptly intervenes.
But overall the movie celebrates Williams as a heroic figure, though an eccentric one. The remaining cast remains pretty much in the shadow of Smith’s colorful turn, but Ellis, Bernthal and Goldwyn manage to take the spotlight on occasion, and Sidney is impressive in the scenes of court action, particularly in the last act. Green and editor Pamela Martin keep things moving even as they allow Smith to do his shtick, while the technical crew—production designers Wynn Thomas and William Arnold, costumer Sharon Davis and cinematographer Robert Elswit—all do expert work and Kris Bowers’ score strikes the right note.
Richard Williams is certainly a more controversial figure than this movie suggests; others will debate whether it’s a fair depiction or a whitewash job. But it presents the version of his story the family is comfortable telling effectively, and simply as a feel-good real-life sports tale it works more often than not.