Strong performances and nuanced characterizations make this polished old-school Hollywood crowd-pleaser more than just a hagiography.
Most of the chatter around Warner Bros.’ King Richard, debuting in theaters and on HBO Max on November 19, will be focused upon Will Smith’s star turn and whether or not he’s going to win this season’s Best Actor Oscar. It’s his to lose at this point. First, he’s quite good in the film. Second, most of his competition will be from lower-profile streaming-centric titles and one of the biggest movie stars of the last 25 years winning his Oscar for a high-quality Hollywood studio programmer is a hell of a narrative. Beyond the awards race, writer Zach Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard is a terrific piece of character-focused popcorn entertainment, a true-life story that never uses its “inspirational true story” as an emotional crutch as an excuse to be less than it can be. And, yes, it offers up a complex portrait of a complex protagonist, a guy whose plans succeeded sometimes in spite of his passive-aggressive instincts.
While the marketing understandably highlights moments where Richard Williams does or says the right thing or watches as his daughters (Venus and Serena) triumph on the court, there is as many moments when the patriarch fails, falls or snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, we the filmgoers know enough about the real-world history of mid-90s and early-2000s tennis to know that everything works out pretty well. Yes, it’s hard to discount Williams’ declarations that his daughters should finish school before going pro. Nonetheless, the picture frankly depicts several sequences where Richard is undone by pride and not-incorrect concerns about structural racism while we watch good-faith coaches (personified by Tony Goldwin and Jon Bernthal) watch helplessly as the next steps remain untaken. There’s more than one exchange which may cause flashbacks to a heartbreaking subplot of August Wilson’s Fences. The conflict over how its children achieve success versus how he envisions their success does eventually boil over in a dramatically satisfying fashion.
This 138 minute-picture gives Aunjanue Ellis’s Oracene “Brandy” Price more than her share of the spotlight. Ellis herself offers a nuanced and complex turn as the put-upon matriarch doing comparatively invisible but no less essential labor. Even while positioning itself as a Will Smith star vehicle, it’s often a true ensemble piece. Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams and Demi Singleton as Serena Williams get full-on character arcs, both within and outside of their father’s ambitions and his shadow. The former gets a professional advantage early on, when a professional coach concedes to coaching one of the two daughters for free, while Serena finds her own way to potential fortune and glory. The key is that every major character is essentially correct during much of the story. Richard is often self-defeating but (thanks to the whole systemic racism variable) not unreasonable. Serena really does get a raw deal and the frustration of coaches, offering their time and talent free of charge, is treated as valid.
I cannot say whether each onscreen event happened as detailed, nor do I care since A) it works as a compelling and engrossing piece of potential fiction and B) I’m not using it to cheat on a school assignment. But the specifics of this story make it stand out and feel unique even when it’s flirting with sports biopic conventions. Moreover, tennis has always been one of the more cinematic sports. It offers two warriors on opposite sides racing across the court as the squeak of the shoes and the “thwock” and “’pwap” of the ball connecting with the racket makes it sound unlike any other athletic competition. Yes, I watched a lot as a kid and my older brother played in the Jr. USTA up until he hurt his back and switched to golf in high school. I’m surprised there aren’t more tennis-based movies, and you get an authentic feel of the Williams’ talents and the singular nature of a high-level match.
Will Smith is as good as he’s ever been here. Smith was box office king from around 2002 to 2008, and he would (for better or worse) came to define the post-9/11 star-driven Hollywood blockbuster. He is, as an actor, excellent far more than not, offering up strong movie star turns in everything from I Am Legend (offering a mostly by-himself turn worthy of Tom Hanks in Cast Away and Sandra Bullock in Gravity) to Hitch (there’s a reason the “non-toxic pick-up artist” movie is one of the top-grossing romantic comedies ever) to weightier fare like Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. King Richard shares a DNA with that 2006 blockbuster. It is both celebrating the American Dream as personified by the incredible true story while (even more explicitly) criticizing the statistical unlikelihood of such economic mobility. There is real drama in his contradictions, including how he seems to fashion himself as the opposite of a stereotypical sports parent in ways good and bad.
King Richard is the best movie Warner Bros. has released during the year of “Project Popcorn” hybrid releases. It’s exactly the kind of film that ennobles the awards season precisely because it’d be unlikely to get made absent the potential for Oscar glory. It’s a thoughtful, nuanced, complex and empathetic character study, a star vehicle that gives ample room and agency to its ensemble while providing top-flight old-school production values and old-fashioned popcorn entertainment. It doesn’t talk down to its viewers but nor does it ignore the cultural specificity that helps make this history being told explicitly unique. And at its center is Will Smith, giving the kind of towering star turn that should make us excited for what he may offer as he grows into an aging character actor who makes more films like Focus alongside the action fantasies. King Richard absolutely celebrates its true story, even while trusting us to notice the darker and more complicated undertones. It’s an absolute winner.