The tagline for “King Richard,” the new movie about the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, is one of the most ostentatious promotional called shots I’ve seen in a while: “Based On The True Story That Will Inspire The World.” It’s a promise apropos of the film’s main character: overbearing, overconfident, not entirely above board — and yet it works out the way he wanted it to in the end, more or less.
“King Richard” follows, as best I can tell, a few years in the life of Richard Williams (played by Will Smith) and his family, as he guides his children Venus and Serena through a plan for tennis stardom, one he crafted before they were born. It would be a tough road for any kid, but moreso for Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton), who come from a poor family in Compton and who are looked at askance on the court by their white, upper-class competitors. Through his kids’ development as tennis players, Richard keeps his own counsel on how they should be trained, often confounding his daughters’ coaches, his wife, and the kids themselves. At the film’s end, his methodology is put to the test, when 14-year-old Venus plays in her first professional tournament. Will Richard’s sensibilities be vindicated, or was he just blowing a lot of hot air? You know who Venus and Serena Williams are, so it’s not hard to guess.
There is more or less going on in “King Richard” from moment to moment, but the reason to watch it is Smith, who reminds you why he’s a star with a charismatic, committed performance. When I say “charismatic,” I don’t mean that you like Richard. Often, you (and the other characters in the film) get very justifiably annoyed with him, with his ego and stubbornness and refusal to butt out of situations in which he has no call to be poking his nose. Smith is unafraid to sketch a more nuanced portrayal of Richard than the film’s tagline suggests, imbuing many of his scenes with raw nerves as the audience stews in his character’s mix of family commitment, passive aggression, and ego. It’s a magnetic turn, one that demands your attention even as you kind of wish you could look away (Singleton and Sidney also play their roles convincingly, as do Aunjanue Ellis as Richard’s then-wife Oracene and Jon Bernthal as the Williams sisters’ tennis coach).
The film is at its best when it’s leaning into the contradictions in Smith’s performance and at the heart of Richard’s character. “King Richard” occasionally stumbles, however, when it lurches in the direction of a more conventional inspirational sports film (and, at almost two-and-a-half hours, it occasionally drags). These moments feel, consciously or not, like director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin trying to flatten out the Williams sisters’ rise or Richard’s personality to make them more simply aspirational, but they don’t serve the messier, more compelling movie at “King Richard’s” heart. One example, of a few: Richard calls out an agent for racist treatment but seems to be pleased by his kids’ recognition only moments before by Nancy Reagan, whose husband’s policies on drugs, welfare and HIV did irreparable harm to the black community in the US.
To “King Richard’s” credit, however, the movie often puts these problems aside to compelling results. Tennis, with its unique sound collage and one-on-one dramatics, is a uniquely cinematic sport, and the scenes of Venus’s competitions are shot well and deliver good tension. My favorite segment of the movie was not athletic, however, but an argument between Richard and Oracene, in which she finally lays bare the way his insecurities often feed into the choices he makes for his daughters. In its best moments, “King Richard” isn’t about tennis or hard work, but about parenting: a recognition that every parent, like every other person, is a bundle of contradictions, and that sorting out their good qualities from their bad is a lifelong, potentially fruitless process.
The film undercuts itself a little in its final text denouement, which seems to suggest that Richard really was right about everything. Even if I wasn’t so personally against helicopter parenting and plotting out charts for my children’s lives, that reassurance still wouldn’t sit right with me; I just saw the movie, and I know that Richard was not always the greatest person. And yet, I can’t argue with the results. Venus and Serena Williams are wildly successful and very inspiring, regardless of whether I want Richard Williams to be.
Ryan Howard writes about pop culture for The Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.