King Richard


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

King Richard
"This unexpected emphasis on the entire clan and, particularly, its eccentric patriarch offers an interesting change from more straightforward biopics." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

As indicated by the title, the latest film from Reinaldo Marcus Green is not intended as a pure Venus and Serena Williams biopic. But it isn’t just about their father Richard either as first-time feature writer Zach Baylin is here to tell us the Williams' success story is most certainly a family affair.

This unexpected emphasis on the entire clan and, particularly, its eccentric patriarch offers an interesting change from more straightforward biopics. At its heart is Will Smith, reminding us after a decade of ho-hum roles in middling movies he can still smash home a performance when he wants to. He disappears into the folds, not to mention the permanently sported tennis shorts, of Richard, a man with a plan. And that plan is simple - his girls are going to be tennis greats. We learn this was a literal manifesto that he devised with his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis, who has done a lot of telly and should get more film roles) in the tiny home they shared with their brood of daughters, all of whom were set their own goals to fulfil.

Richard probably wouldn’t characterise himself as a rebel but his relentless pursuit of his goals makes him an almost accidental disrupter. Single-minded in his belief and support of is daughters, we see how he pushes them hard on the scrappy court near their home in LA’s working-class Compton while shoving with equal effort at the closed doors of well-to-do tennis coaches. While Richard may be the film’s chief focus, there’s also plenty of time for Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to shine because he, in turn, is so focused on them. The film shows the depth of a sisterly bond, which could so easily have been complicated by rivalry and jealousy but which, instead, reveals the pair working as a team no matter what. Richard’s larger than life presence, meanwhile, is emphasised by his slightly plodding gait and the way he seems to almost have to fold himself double in order to get into the small VW van his family drive around it.

He’s also shown to have a great line in patter, such as when he tells one coach, “You're making a mistake, but I'm going to let you make it.” It's just as well because Baylin shows just how nigh-on impossible it was for Richard to get his girls into an almost hermetically sealed tennis world populated by rich white folk - "a little adversity, that's okay" he says in a grand example of understatement. Scenes at the posh clubs are dripping with polite privilege, little more than a thin veneer over latent racism and classism. The disbelief on one sponsor’s face when he finds himself politely interrogated about what he means by his use of the word “incredible” is a beautiful encapsulation of this.

The film shows Richard as relentless but focused on old-fashioned values, like being polite and humble. He may be a pushy parent but he also has supreme confidence in his daughters - and who doesn't secretly want that sort of support from their dad? Certainly, this is an 'authorised version' which treads carefully in terms of the way he is presented but the dynamic between Richard and Brandi lends depth to the film, as his wife is there to remind him that they are family, first and foremost.

Away from the family dynamic, Green generates a decent amount of adrenaline on the court, with a climactic match that sees Venus, the protégé at 14, take on world No.2 Arantxa Sánchez Vicario - although it’s the game that Richard is coaching in the teenagers’ heads and hearts that really counts.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2021
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King Richard packshot
Story of the Williams sisters rise to tennis fame under the tutelage of their father.
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London 2021

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