Will Smith hits a winner with King Richard. Playing the driven, eccentric and controversial father of budding tennis prodigies Venus and Serena Williams in the late 1980s and 1990s, the protean actor finds a new gear as he inhabits a complicated and gutsy man who trailblazes a path for two highly talented girls in their early teens in a sport where Black aspirants were virtually unheard of, especially in the female ranks. This engaging account of an unprecedented double-whammy success story for two sisters will play very well with all manner of audiences.
A generation or two ago, few sports were as lily-white as tennis, and the notion of girls from the rough hood of Compton rather than Beverly Hills producing tennis stars was unthinkable. And to say that the cranky, idiosyncratic Richard Williams provoked raised eyebrows and endless consternation in the tennis world would be an understatement. But, at the end of the day, he showed them all, and anyone who remembers the man’s often outlandish appearances on sports broadcasts at the time will be edified and impressed by the more rounded and complex account of his behavior provided this new film.
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“Venus and Serena gonna shake up the world,” Richard proclaims early on as he puts the two oldest of his five daughters through the rigors of constant practice on the untended and sometimes dangerous tennis courts to be found in the hood. It’s not entirely clear how Richard manages to support his girls and wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), and there are occasional unnerving assaults on this tight family by local thugs whose preferred sports clearly do not include hitting balls over a net.
But Richard puts everything he’s got into shaping, hammering and goading Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) into tough, strong winners; his frequent unreasonableness notwithstanding, you get behind this guy because he’s got an impossible dream that fuels his every waking minute, to see his kids become not just school stars but the very best in the world.
In the face of widespread skepticism, Richard pushes his girls along, and at one point they go to a posh SoCal club where the young John McEnroe and Pete Sampras rule the roost. People begin to notice the sisters, but when push comes to shove, Richard decides that, for now, he’s got to put all his cards on Venus, leaving the almost equally qualified Serena behind. All along, the man is contradictory in surprising ways, goading them at one moment, stressing the need to stay humble at the next. He also clearly needs and values everything his wife brings to the table and the relationship, but at times makes life very difficult for her as well.
Richard’s behavior around mucky-mucks of the tennis world can also prove bewildering; agents and trainers know a good thing when they see it but are inevitably startled and dismayed by the man’s sometime unpredictability and unprofessional behavior, especially when he holds Venus back from advancing to professional status. The man always has his reasons, but they are sometimes very hard to understand; at times one wants to know more about the basis upon which he makes his decisions, whether he’s an uncanny judge of timing or perhaps simply afraid of losing complete control to agents and managers in the professional world who like to think they know better.
Eventually, the big time cannot be avoided any longer, and the climax hinges upon Venus’ first professional tournament contest, a wrenching and suspicious 1994 affair with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the world’s number two female player. As with all the other tennis in the film, the match is very credibly presented and ends up providing a pleasingly unconventional wind-up to a story that, from a conventional perspective, would only seem like the beginning.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose first feature, Monsters And Men, won the Special Jury Prize for a first feature at Sundance 2018, and was followed two years later by the less well received Joe Bell, keeps a firm hand on the tone, gliding smoothly from warm family interludes to tense scenes of hometown confrontations, professional disputes and tennis action. To be sure, this is Smith’s show from beginning to end, but energy levels run high throughout.