When Compton security guard Richard Williams (Will Smith) watched a tennis match whose victor won $40K, he wrote up a 78 page plan on how to create a winning tennis pro, telling his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis, "The Help") they needed to have two kids to accomplish his goal. Joining Brandi’s three daughters were their own, Venus (Saniyya Sidney, "Fences") and Serena (Demi Singleton), and dad began training them on Compton’s run down courts through rain and shine. Williams got the attention of many, finally convincing Pete Sampras's (Chase Del Rey) coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to train them for free, but not everyone believed in “King Richard.”
Laura's Review: B
Venus and Serena Williams and the unorthodox father who propelled them to the starriest heights of the sports world exemplify the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. At heart, this is a story of how an entire family banded together to pursue a goal, but although Smith’s Williams is shown to occasionally frustrate those around him, chiefly his wife and the coach, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who took the girls pro, one suspects writer Zach Baylin has smoothed some of Richard’s rougher edges. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green ("Joe Bell") employs a straightforward approach, balancing Williams family life against the tennis world for an inspirational sports movie that is above average largely due to its well cast ensemble.
A grizzled Smith employing Black dialect presents a hard working father utterly committed to his family whose confidence in his own abilities is unshakeable. He and his wife maintain back breaking schedules as their daughters, five in one bedroom, happily follow their regimented rules.
Richard cleans the courts in Compton, Brandi’s daughters hanging motivational signs on its chain link fence to spur Venus and Serena on. Dad will also undergo several beatings from a local gang harassing the eldest, Tunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew). After being turned away by many, Cohen’s involvement gets Venus into the Juniors circuit, where she’s soon making local headlines (Serena must stand back for a while, dad assuring her that while Venus will become number one, she will become the best the sport has ever seen).
Richard is persistent getting into the game, but has no qualms calling out racial condescension from those who dare call his family’s success exceptional. Once the family signs up with Macci, moving to Florida, he frustrates the pro, refusing to allow the girls to continue in the proven Juniors tournament path, instead insisting they jump into the pro world ‘when they’re ready.’ Even that will take some convincing, from Venus herself, but when the endorsement deals begin to flow, Macci cannot believe it when the Williams turn down a record breaking deal $1 million higher than Jennifer Capriati’s (Jessica Wacnik). They’ll end up with one four times that amount.
There are hiccups along the way within the family as well, Brandi playing a much bigger role, especially with Serena, than she’s given credit for (we will learn that the wide stance championed by Richard was really her contribution). Richard’s insistence on humility (he’ll drive away from the girls to Brandi’s horror over perceived bragging) verges on abuse given the exemplary conduct of his daughters.
“King Richard” takes the non-traditional path of ending with a loss, but that first big professional game that sees 14 year-old Venus going much farther than anyone had hoped against a world champ (Arantxa Sánchez Vicario) is full of suspense. Sidney and Singleton convince as both supportive sisters and star athletes and Ellis is essential balance to Smith. I’ve always found Smith most convincing when he reaches far past his own persona and the sports world has given him his best roles, first with “Ali,” then “Concussion.” This one makes it a hat trick.
Robin's Review: B+
I have never been a “sports guy,” you know, a being who likes sports. And, aside from know who are McEnroe and Borg, never followed professional tennis. But, that lack of knowledge did not matter a lick as I sat down to watch the biography of Richard Williams, who happened to be the father, trainer, promoter and business force behind daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) and the greats they would become in “King Richard.”
As I said, I am not a sports person, but even I knew who Venus and Serena are and were, but, I knew nothing about their dad. Will Smith is at his best when he plays a real-life character, like Dr. Bennet Omalu in “Concussion (2015),” and he has a doozy of a role in Richard Williams.
We meet Richard as he scours the local tennis courts for discarded balls. Then, we meet his all-femme family and, in particular, Venus and Serena and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis). This is where the girls’ story kicks in and Richard goes into high gear promoting his daughters’ careers making this the meat of the story of King Williams.
Smith makes you edgy as he relentlessly pursues backing from rich, white, tennis fans and pushing his way into places he should not – except for his relentless pursuit of the goals. This includes his self-proclaimed, 78-page manifesto to help his two daughters to fulfill their destiny – as he, and no one else, sees it. He is a man who will not take no for an answer and he will even argue a “yes” if it benefits him and his family. It is a fine character study by Will Smith.
Supporting cast, as you hope and expect in a 2+ hour biography, are up there with the star. Sidney and Singleton, as Venus and Serena, are in top form giving full dimension to being the daughters of the hard-to-live-with Williams. They also give the characters convincing physical ability and skill at the sport they would come to dominate. It felt like I was seeing the stars in their formative stage, which it is.
Aunjanue Ellis also gives three-dimensions to Brandy, who is used to Richard’s unbending ways and will put down her foot when he goes too far – which he does frequently. Tony Goldwyn, as trainer Paul Cohen who first took Venus under his wing, pro bono, and Jon Bernthal, as Paul Macci, the guy that took the girls to the brink of becoming stars (despite Richard’s frequent interferences), are both fully defined.
One thing that comes on strong in Richard Williams’ character is that, more than anything, he loved his family and everything he did, he did for them, and making sure they received a good education and did not want. As I said, this is a fine character study by Will Smith and will be noted at year’s end.
Oh, and if you are curious about where the title of the film comes from, pay close attention in the first few minutes or you will miss it.
Warner Brothers releases "King Richard" in theaters and on HBO/MAX on 11/19/21.