Tennis may not be the most popular sport in America, but when a player (or two) comes along and dominates a sport, any sport, the people take notice. Basket ball has Michael Jordan. Swimming has Michael Phelps. And tennis has Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard tells the story of the Williams family and Venus and Serena’s journey towards tennis stardom. And it does so with the heart and dramatic flair that you want in a biographical film.
The focus of the story is on Richard (Will Smith), father and coach to Venus and Serena. Determined to give his daughters a better life than he had himself, Richard pushes his daughters to be the best that they can be. In school, in life and in sports. Through hours of early morning and late night training on a sub par court in Compton, the girls hone their talents. However, Richard’s drive and unconventional techniques can only take his daughters so far with the limited resources available to them. In order for the girls to become champions, something will have to change.
Back in 2015 Will Smith looked like a strong candidate for a best actor nod at the academy awards. His performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu in the football drama Concussion had earned him a nomination at the Golden Globes, after all. While Smith didn’t receive an academy nomination that year, he’s surely a front runner this year. The Academy loves a good biography and an underdog story. King Richard is both. It’s also Smith’s best performance to date. He perfectly captures the raw emotions of a father giving everything he has for his children.
While Smith is likely to receive the most recognition (and it’s certainly earned), the entire cast gave standout performances. I’m a sucker for Jon Bernthal (The Punisher), who plays tennis master Rick Macci. But perhaps Demi Singleton, as a young Serena, and Saniyya Sidney, as a young Venus, deserve the biggest praise. Portraying a real life, living person, on screen is a daunting task for any actor; however, these young girls stepped up to the challenge and excelled.
Films adapted from true stories are often criticized for taking too many creative liberties with the story. And, sure, that probably happens here, as well. Even the best stories are tweaked and molded to fit a proper film narrative. But the heart of this story is in the family dynamic. The bond and love between parents and their children. And that feels real and incredibly genuine. As parents, we strive to give our children the very best. To give them all of the things we didn’t have growing up. It’s that basic desire that drives Richard and it’s that drive and commitment that makes this movie so enjoyable. As viewers we know how the story ends. We know that Venus and Serena go on to be two of the most talented and successful tennis players in the history of the game. But we are invested in the story none the less, because the characters and the journey are so engaging.
King Richard is a triumph. An emotional and uplifting story in a time when such stories are rare. It’s quite an accomplishment. A film that will delight critics and movie going audiences, with the potential to win big come awards season. Likely to be as successful as the Williams sisters themselves. 9/10