King Richard – Review

King Richard Venus and Serena Williams are two of the biggest names in tennis, perhaps even in sport. Their meteoric rise to success – from such a young age – has given them both careers which span decades and influence which lasts a lifetime. So, how did two young girls swap Compton for Wimbledon?

King Richard centres around the William’s girls’ father, Richard, and his influence over their careers. Before his girls were even born, he wrote a 78 page manifesto, predicting their successes down to the very last detail. With his second wife working double shifts and Richard working night shift – and with no access to a decent tennis court – Williams put his all into balancing education and humility with confidence and winning.

Although Richard and his two daughters are at the heart of this biopic, the film branches out into wider themes such as race, access and opportunity. Every tennis club the Williams visit – Richard ready to hand out leaflets promoting his daughters’ skills – is startingly white. It is manicured lawns and long blonde ponytails. At their local court, Richard is threatened with a gun by a gang. On TV, he watches the Rodney King footage. At competitions, Venus and Serena don’t see other girls who look like them. Zack Baylin’s script is both subtle and in-your-face with this commentary. As much as this is an “old fashioned sports movie”, it’s also one with a little bit of a social conscience.

Like most biopics, the story has already been written. Going into the film, you know the outcome. However, that doesn’t take away from how much King Richard will grip you. The tennis matches are executed perfectly, in terms of building tension, and it’s fascinating to see the sheer amount of hours and effort that go into creating champions.

It’s fair to say that Will Smith is on top form, here. As Richard, he is equal parts inspirational and irritating. The mindset that he instilled in his daughters is nothing short of remarkable and yet, he is also incredibly frustrating. If it’s not in his plan, he isn’t interested. Smith is great in this dramatic role, where we get to see glimpses of charm and humour, too.  He is both hero and villain, at times, in this story. Aunjanue Ellis, as Richard’s second wife Oracene, is the calming, steady voice in the background. Ellis is excellent in this usually underwritten “supportive spouse” role. She might not pace up and down the courts, yelling about open stances, but she is every bit as determined to do better for her family.

Saniyya Sidney (as Venus) and Demi Singleton (as Serena) are both utterly captivating. It’s stark how young these tennis legends both were upon starting their careers. They have all the normal pressures of being young teenagers and yet they are quietly confident in their capabilities on the court. Both actresses are endearing and vulnerable when they need to be, but with a clear fire in their eyes when they are playing.

King Richard Jon Bernthal provides the support as tennis coach, Rick Macci. He doesn’t have much to do beyond be utterly exasperated at Richard’s antics – at one point, he farts his way out of a meeting – but it’s nice to see Bernthal make it to the end of a film without being killed off.

Although – like most sports movies – the film climaxes with “the big game”, it’s not the cliched jubilant outcome you would expect from what is essentially an underdog story.

Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is one that manages to balance harsh realities with moments of real motivation. Like the Williams sisters themselves, it has a focus and drive and a clear narrative. Yes, it’s a ‘feel good’ movie but it never strays into schmaltzy territory. It lays bare Richard’s faults and failings as much as it celebrates his successes. It’s got a poppy, upbeat soundtrack – including a Beyonce song over the credits – and is a thoroughly entertaining watch, whether you are a tennis fan or not.

Bringing the sisters’ story to light in this way will hopefully inspire a new generation of young, black tennis stars.

King Richard is now showing in UK cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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