King Richard, a hugely tear-jerking and crowd-pleasing drama about how the father of tennis legends Venus Williams and Serena Williams set them on their path to greatness, wowed the Galaxy Theatre audience at its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Thursday night. It strikes me as being bound for major awards recognition, first and foremost for lead actor Will Smith, who plays the eponymous Richard Williams, but quite possibly extending across-the-board and up to best picture (for which Smith, as a producer, is also eligible; the Williams sisters are executive producers).
Many people know the broad outlines of the story: a working-class husband and father who loved tennis, but had little personal experience playing it, guided two of his five daughters from the courts of Compton to the top of the sport by stubbornly sticking to a “plan” that he had mapped out before they were even born.
But the details of how he and his daughters defied the odds, to a truly mind-blowing degree (they are the two greatest players in the history of women’s tennis and are still going strong into their forties), are filled in and fleshed out — with ample measures of both humor and heartbreak — in a script by Zach Baylin (which was 2018’s #2 finisher on The Blacklist of the industry’s best unproduced scripts) and under the direction of Reinaldo Marcus Green (heretofore best known for 2018’s Monsters and Men, which won a special jury award for outstanding first feature at Sundance).
And what can one say about the performances? Smith transforms his look, posture and speech to emulate that of “King Richard,” and has several show-stopping scenes and monologues. Strong Smith performances have previously been Oscar-nominated (2001’s Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness) and overlooked (2015’s Concussion), but I don’t think he has ever had a more Oscar-friendly role — or been better. It may well be his time. It’s hard to imagine many better performances coming along this season.
Also excellent, in support: Aunjanue Ellis, the twice Emmy-nominated actress, who has a couple of wonderful moments to shine as Oracene Price, the soft-spoken but fierce matriarch of the Williams family; Jon Bernthal, who totally captures the spirit of the high-priced and high-energy tennis coach Rick Macci; and Saniyya Sidney (Fences) and Demi Singleton, who are spot-on as young Venus and Serena, respectively, portraying them almost entirely before either turned pro — and somehow playing professional-looking tennis, as well, which has almost never been the case in a movie before.
And the below-the-line work is top-of-the-line, too, especially the heart-tugging score by Kris Bowers (Green Book); cinematography by Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood); film editing by Pamela Martin (an Oscar nominee for The Fighter); and an original song by Beyonce, “Be Alive,” which plays over the end-credits, which themselves are must-see, featuring footnotes about and archival footage of the real Williamses.
If I may allow myself a personal point of privilege, I’d like to note that when I was in my teens I spent many summers as a ballkid at New Haven’s Pilot Pen International Tennis Tournament, which was held a week before the U.S. Open. Venus Williams was just starting out her professional career, and I got to work many of her matches, and also to not infrequently shoot the breeze with Mr. Williams, who was very kind to us ballkids. I don’t think the filmmakers could have nailed these two more than they did, which is perhaps part of why I found the film so moving — but my guess is that people who have never heard of the Williams family will have the same reaction.
Warner Bros. plans to release the $50 million film on Nov. 19.