What does love mean in tennis? In King Richard, it means much more than zero as the film recounts the dogged determination of Richard Williams (Will Smith) to guide daughters Venus and Serena to their dominantly winning ways. It’s an unlikely journey – two Compton kids who eschewed the normal route to athletic excellence. Part of that was their circumstances, but another was their father’s refusal to court familiar paths in their eventual superstardom.
Directed in unfussy fashion by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film starts approximately three decades ago when Richard’s short shorts were slightly more in style. He works days and nights in SoCal supporting five kids alongside his equally stalwart wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis). Constantly referencing his 78 page plan for success for Venus and Serena, Richard’s reaction to rejection (which he gets plenty of) is to look at it as another door opening. His relentless nature for his daughters training and their achievement in the classroom is to shield them from the dangers that exist right outside the front door. The Williams clan lives in a bubble of Richard and Brandy’s own making and one that clearly yielded now universally known results.
In any biopic, there’s picking and choosing of the focused upon details. The screenplay, from Zach Baylin, prefers to center on the positive. The King’s flaws, including hinted at infidelity and a penchant for self promotion, are kept on the periphery. Richard’s public persona is given a makeover here. Given the paradigm shifting accomplishments of his pupils, it’s one worth taking in.
That’s not to say the outsized personality of the title character isn’t occasionally played for humor. When Richard and the family (and his contract stipulates the whole family) arrive in Florida for the prodigies to be trained by Rick Macci (a gloriously mustachioed Jon Bernthal), he eyes a fancy golf cart that he knows he’ll be commandeering. Flash forward to a couple years later and it’s his. This is a subtle and small example of how Richard seems to will situations into existence. The more significant examples deal with the jackpot at the end of the rainbow that everyone knows is coming. It’s about to rain for his kids and Richard opens infuriating umbrellas for negotiators on the other side of the table.
King Richard succeeds in presenting an uplifting tale of persistence. There’s no shortage of lump in throat moments. Some of that comes from Smith’s top notch embodiment of his obsessive character. Plenty of it is also provided by Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena. It’s a credit to the script and their performances that I found myself desperately wanting them to overcome their obstacles and therefore forgetting that I know they do. As Brandi (who eventually divorced Richard though that isn’t mentioned), Ellis is equally impressive. Her key moments come in quick and frank bursts that will surely score with audiences.
One could quibble with accuracies or the ignoring of certain facts, but Smith and company have hit the mark in stirring an emotional story centered on the benefits of hard work. What does love mean in King Richard? More than just tennis.
***1/2 (out of four)