Throughout King Richard, I kept waiting for a flashback. The thing about biopics is that even the good ones tend to be overstuffed, bogged down by an incessant need to fill out their subject’s life. It generally comes with the price of admission. But director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s latest offering never indulges the genre’s cradle-to-grave instincts. It’s a relief, and also a reminder that, despite its title coronating Richard Williams, this is really the origin story of his tennis prodigies, Venus and Serena, whom he willed onto an unrelenting trajectory to superstardom. He only operates within the confines of their development.
The starting point is a 78-page plan, a manifesto that Richard (Will Smith) believes will chart a championship course for his gifted daughters. As deftly depicted by Green, his training sessions, which began when Venus was just four years old on the beleaguered courts of their Compton neighborhood, provide a ripe window into this unorthodox father, dogged coach, and indefatigable promoter. Each day after school he drives them to a local, beat-up park, hangs his motivational posters on the fence, and rolls out a grocery cart of tennis balls, which Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) spray back at him on repeat. Considering the gang members and gun shots that encircle them each night, practicing is both an act of defiance and a potential way out.
Which is why, in the early stages of Zach Baylin’s script, Richard—a middle-aged, bearded Black man—traverses the upper crust of Los Angeles in his worn-down VW van, petitioning local country club coaches to instruct the pre-teen stars he’s been molding for free. “I’m in the champion-raising business,” he says, handing out homemade brochures and video tapes, while receiving baffled stares and polite dismissals. This gimmicky montage works because there is never a doubt about the greatness Richard is cultivating between the leave-strewn lines, or about what his daughters will become—two of the greatest players in tennis history. It makes for good irony. It also makes the stakes of this family sports drama specific to Richard’s eccentricities and drill-sergeant methods, and whether he’ll be able to calm his protective instincts at the end of his compulsory pursuit.
It’s been a while since Smith has transformed himself so thoroughly. The last time was for Concussion, playing a soft-spoken doctor that evaporated the majority of Smith’s ebullience and charisma with him. It was a total immersion that also made him feel lost. But King Richard feels closer to his speed, something akin to his performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happiness, big swings—or slams down the line—that never risk him popping out of his shoes. That’s the pratfall for most movie stars attempting an historical, oddball figure like this—the voice can be too strained, the makeup too distracting, the choices too calculated. But Smith has found a character whose egocentricity and dynamic range matches his own itchy movie star persona.
Like his interpretation of Dr. Bennet Omalu, Smith subdues his smooth tenor to channel Richard’s front-of-the-palette diction, walking slightly hunched and with an awkward gait. The characteristics suggest a history of Richard’s clawing—occasionally intimidating—persistence, like when he convinces Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to pause his practice session with John McEnroe and Pete Sampras so that Venus can showcase her skillset. At any moment, Richard is ready with personal anecdotes and misguided parables capable of turning into harsh soliloquies at the first sign of resistance. At one point, a nosy neighbor calls Child Services to scold Richard’s intensive programming and Smith turns a hostile living room encounter into a tear-jerking defense of parenthood.
There are a few other moments like this, buttressed by Richard’s wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), who keeps to the sidelines but casts an accountable shadow over her inscrutable husband. Together they raise her three daughters from a previous marriage, fostering a collective bond of five and code of mutual support. Perhaps because King Richard is executive-produced by the Williams sisters, you can’t help but feel a certain veneer hovering over this family portrait, one that Green and Baylin have kept from cracking by only mildly referencing Richard’s absentee relationship with his five other children by another woman. These thornier subjects—including some gang-related beatdowns and brash parenting—have been sanded into more palatable moments of alienation and motivation.
This is just Green’s third feature, but you can feel his stamp even as he scales up. In his debut, Monsters and Men, featuring a mosaic of perspectives surrounding a police shooting, Green found a quiet humanity in the way he framed his subjects, intently observing their faces in close-up and cropping silhouettes in the claustrophobic space of a car. There’s a similar intimacy in King Richard, particularly on the court, capturing the intensity of tennis matches by focusing on the expressions of his gifted young actors while cutting back to Richard, anxiously pacing in the corner of stadiums and tunnels as he watches his plan come to fruition. The actual tennis is electric mostly because Green’s sequencing and pace knows how to intensify—not necessarily depict—its forehand winners.
It’s not until the family moves to Florida, where tennis coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) takes Venus under his wing, that Smith finally gets a worthy hitting partner. Bernthal chews up his scenes as a sunkissed starmaker, relishing his tennis compound, which soon turns into a rivalrous playground when Richard pulls his daughters from professional tournaments so they can live more normal teenage lives. It’s a complicated and contradictory decision, and Richard’s media-friendly, outsized personality only highlights the hypocritical lessons he has instilled into his daughters.
You’d expect more retaliatory resentment from Venus and Serena, but it’s hard to argue with the man that has got them into unrivaled positions within the sport. When the movie has built up to its climactic match—Venus’ first professional tournament—the 14-year-old is essentially jockeying for endorsements. But Green is smart enough to keep the real drama centered on the compelling internal connection between her and Richard, the adversity they have endured in ways none of Venus’s opponents ever have. The glory here isn’t about money—it’s about witnessing a transfer of power, a reign ending, and another beginning.
King Richard is now in theaters and on HBO Max.