Venus and Serena Williams are forever immortalised as a couple of the most dominating forces ever witnessed on the tennis court, but behind their success are their parents, Richard (Will Smith) and Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). A character on-camera and behind closed doors, Richard Williams serves as a father first and coach second to his daughters, as they reach their teenage years. His sole drive is to achieve his 78-page plan for tennis stardom, whilst keeping his children off the streets and away from danger – even if it often means putting his own safety on the line. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard is an ode to the man and the instrumental part he played in his daughters’ success, eventually moulding them into legends.
A biopic that feels like a rich tapestry of history and family love, the release features arguably Will Smith’s greatest performance to date (or at least on a par with his roles in The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali). Smith is both humble and lovable in his depiction of the flawed Williams, showing how dearly he holds his family; the viewer firmly connects with this through consistent and effective reminders of the pain and suffering he experienced in his earlier and present life. Smith’s acting abilities are, once again, put to the ultimate test, with a heavy dose of humour and sparing use of prosthetics. Viewers won’t be too surprised if Best Actor nominations are heading his way come awards season.
Likewise, Jon Bernthal is scintillating in his role as tennis coach Rick Macci – a certain contender for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards early next year. Ellis also puts in a belting performance as Oracene Williams, showing what an awesome woman Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena’s (Demi Singleton) mother is, and providing one of the movie’s more powerful moments when she clashes with her husband’s controlling personality. One is aware that Richard may not have been perfect, but it would have been nice to see more scenes like this between members of the family, highlighting the immense pressure on a child who is told they will achieve greatness because “that is the plan”.
Is it an adventurous movie? Well, to the tennis obsessive it sure is, and both Williams sisters have grown to become such cultural icons that it is captivating to travel on this historical adventure with such a talented cast. Although the title may direct attention towards the father, King Richard is just as much Venus’s story too, courtesy of the fine writing by Zach Baylin. Sure, Serena’s journey is also foreshadowed, but it was Venus who broke down all the barriers that Richard was so concerned about her crashing into – from racial prejudice at country clubs to becoming an icon for young black children around the world in an underrepresented sport.
With added themes of police brutality, a colourful period wardrobe and a soundtrack compiled of late 80s and early 90s bangers, King Richard provides quite the vibe, offering the complete package. The feel-good movie aims to inspire and teach respect, much as Richard and his daughters did in the early days, proving that wherever you are from, even if it is the “mean streets” of Compton, you can achieve whatever you set your heart on. The staggering difference here is that it is not a fairytale sports movie, but completely true.
King Richard is released nationwide 19th November on 2021.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for King Richard here: