Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell) helms this sports origin story about the creation of tennis superstars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) Williams, thanks to the dedication and drive of their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith). (144 min.)
- Photo Courtesy Of Overbrook Entertainment
- CHAMPION MAKER Richard Williams (Will Smith) makes tennis superstars of his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), in King Richard, screening in local theaters and HBO Max.
Glen I don't know enough about the Williams family to know how accurate this story is, but as a straight-up family drama and examination of a very unusually big personality, it's wholly compelling. Richard Williams is portrayed as a man of convictions and contradictions. His single-minded pursuit of his daughters' success is admirable, but he's unquestionably overbearing at times. At one point after his "girls" are celebrating a juniors tennis tournament win, he admonishes them for gloating, demanding that they be humble. It's advice he himself should take. As his daughters' success grows, so does his need to take credit for it. Smith—when he's not doing utter crap like After Earth (2013), Wild Wild West (1999), and Gemini Man (2019)—can turn in an amazing performance. Think Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Enemy of the State (1998), Ali (2001), and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). King Richard is among his best. Aunjanue Ellis as his wife, Oracene "Brandy" Williams, also turns in a powerhouse performance. The film is already winning major film festivals, and I'll be very surprised if these two actors aren't Academy Award nominees.
Anna I'm in the same boat as far as my knowledge of the Williams family and the tennis world in general, but this is definitely a powerhouse in terms of overall story, filmmaking, and performances. The little I did know surrounding the two tennis stars' upbringing definitely centered on their father's involvement and drive, but I certainly didn't know that Richard had a plan for Venus and Serena even before they were born—and not a vague, "my girls are going to be stars" kind of plan, but a clear and detailed map of their rise to not just be great, but to be the best there ever was. How much of that sticks exactly to the truth I'm not sure, but Smith is so successful at playing Richard with nuance, staying away from a ham-fisted portrayal of an overbearing jerk but also letting the character's flaws open up to the audience. A lot of Richard's determination seems to stem from the lack of opportunity he had and his determination to get his family away from the streets of Compton. Ellis turns out a wonderful performance as well; Smith is definitely not carrying this film on his own—it really is all about this family and their changing dynamics as the years go by. Kudos to Singleton and Sidney who take on the roles of Venus and Serena as well—they give their fellow cast a run for their money with their vulnerable performances.
Glen Over and over we see Richard express his determination to keep his family safe. They're Jehovah's Witnesses, which plays strongly into Richard's faith, but we also learn later that Richard had other children with other wives before he and Brandy had five girls. That's what I mean by contradictory—Richard is fiercely loyal to his family but we never hear—at least from him—about his other children. I'm all for learning from one's mistakes, but Richard comes off as a man who doesn't always know how to admit when he's wrong. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and his two daughters arguably became the greatest two tennis players in the world. My question is: Was it worth it? Seeing what they went through makes you wonder. The film also opens the curtain to the world of high-stakes juniors tennis, the place where professionals are made, and both Tony Goldwyn as coach Paul Cohen and Jon Bernthal as coach Rick Macci turn in great performances as titans of their field forced to suffer the indignities of Richard Williams, who thought he knew best. Maybe he did. He didn't do things the orthodox way, but he was instrumental in making two world champs.
Anna In learning more about this film, I read that both Serena and Venus were executive producers along with their sister, Isha Price, and from what they've said in interviews, the truth plays out on-screen. One thing they did want to convey through the film was that Richard's biggest priority was not actually tennis, it was teaching his children to be grounded in their faith, do well in school, and be good people. Tennis came after all of that, something that perhaps wasn't seen as much by the public but that the girls felt every day. Tennis was their privilege if all of those other things were being taken care of. This film is definitely a commitment, coming in at almost 2 1/2 hours, but it has enough heart to carry the audience along the journey. Whether you know a little bit or a whole bunch about this family or this sport, you're bound to enjoy the beautiful performances here. Δ
Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.