The best and most unbelievable stories are often true. That is definitely the case when it comes to Richard Williams, a man who wrote out an 85-page plan detailing how not one, but two of his young daughters would take the world by storm and become the two greatest tennis champions the world has ever seen. That's a bit far-fetched, but what makes it miraculous is that he wrote this plan years before they were ever born.
His story is the story of his two daughters, Venus and Serena Williams, who did go on to become two of the greatest tennis champs and athletes ever produced. They weren't the first female African-American all-stars (look up Ora Washington, Althea Gibson or Zina Garrison), but they did open up the door for an entire generation of young girls as they absolutely dominated their sport for nearly two decades.
"King Richard" is funny, touching and inspiring. It has the make-up of a traditional underdog sports film (an over-saturated genre to be sure), yet it doesn't feel like any of the others that have come before it. It's all held together with what will surely be an award-worthy turn by Will Smith, who after a few misfires ("Bad Boys For Life," "Gemini Man," "Bright") fires on all cylinders as the man behind-the-scenes in the life of two iconic Americans.
Just how good were Venus and Serena Williams? Older sister Venus is a seven-time Grand Slam title winner in singles tennis, with Serena amassing 23 wins to-date. They've both been ranked #1 and #2 in the world, often at the same time in history. They've each won four Gold Medals at the Summer Olympics. If there is an award or championship to win in the sport of tennis, the Williams Sisters have won it.
But their paths were paved by Richard Williams (Smith), and their stoic mother, Oracene Williams (Aunjanue Ellis). Young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) are mostly sheltered from the struggles of their parents and of the world around them. In one scene, the Rodney King beating is playing on the TV in the background, but Richard and Williams quietly make sure that their family is oblivious. They plan to will their children's success into fruition, and in order for them to "make it," they'll need to believe they can accomplish more than what society might be telling them.
Richard is a wheeler and a dealer, teaching tennis to his girls at the local park even when gang-bangers are swirling all around. Richard nearly loses his grip one night, answering to an inner-rage that would have derailed not only his life, but that of his family. But divine intervention keeps him on the right path. What he does, he does for his two little girls, but there is also a part of Richard that loves the limelight...or at least he sees himself as a lightning rod to distract negative energy away from his daughters.
After being turned down by every professional tennis coach in town, an esteemed trainer, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) reluctantly agrees to take Venus - but not Serena - under his wing. She's good, he can see that. But he sees Richard as getting in the way of her traditional ascension within the ranks of the sport. Richard is just stubbornly sticking to his "plan" and believes he knows what's best. When he strays, Oracene is there to jar him back into line.
They eventually come to famous coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) who takes the girls to the next level. While Richard is fighting for his girls to turn pro, Venus and Serena are both growing, like all children do, and forming their own opinions. Can Venus handle the pressures being placed on her? And can Serena ever crawl out of her sister's shadow?
We of course know the answers to these questions, but "King Richard" manages to keep us on our toes, the way a good tennis coach would. Some of the sharper edges of this real-life story were omitted or smoothed over (in one fantastic scene between Smith and Ellis, some of Richard's uglier past is touched on but never explored), but the film feels much more like a celebration than a deep-dive biography. As it should be. The Williams Sisters - and their parents - deserve to be celebrated, and "King Richard" is worthy of their tremendous talents.
You don't need to know anything about tennis, or the Williams Sisters even, to enjoy "King Richard." Every year, there is a film or two that intersects that rare crossing-point where critics and regular movie-goers both feel like they want to root for a movie to succeed. "King Richard" is that film. Will Smith is a force, but mostly because of the character he is portraying, and not the other way around.
Genre: Biography, Sports, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green ("Joe Bell," "Monsters and Men").
"King Richard" is in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, November 19th, 2021.
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