Yet again, our screens are (somewhat) graced with Will Smith in a biopic. King Richard follows the life of Richard Williams (Will Smith), the undeterred father and coach of international tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams – who in fact serve as executive producers to the film. Unsurprisingly, tennis fans would be quick to go watch this origin story, but they would be disappointed to find that the movie is nothing more than its title suggests. After having watched the film, it is painstakingly clear that director Reinaldo Marcus Green wanted to ensure that it was strictly a Richard Williams biopic. Whether this is because he wanted to allow room for later film adaptations of the Williams sisters themselves or simply because he felt Richard in his own right was deserving of a whole 145 minutes, it ultimately meant that any emerging subplot or theme was hastily shut down and the film did not have enough scope or depth to make it a well-rounded experience.
King Richard appears to struggle with whether it wants its protagonist to be likeable or not. With big-budget biopics such as this, directors often have to decide from the outset whether they want their character to be loved or hated at the expense of the viewers’ comfort. However, it is hard to tell what Green’s intentions were exactly. Richard Williams does several infuriating things throughout the film, but we never get the impression that what he did was necessarily wrong. This ends up making the film itself slightly uncomfortable, and by the end one is unsure as to how they feel about Williams on the whole. Indeed, maybe this was Green’s exact intention – leave it up to the audience to decide whether both his professional and personal decisions were justified. However, it ended up making the film seem indecisive and underdeveloped, and I, for one, never really felt like I could either sympathise or criticise with his actions.
Green fared a lot better with the dramatic scenes in the film than the tennis sequences. The shots of the sisters in and out of training with various coaches became flat and repetitive – I mean, there’s only so many times young Venus can hit a forehand. The heavier scenes, however, were the most engaging, as it was only in these scenes that we were able to see the actors and storyline reach their full potential. A heated argument between Richard and his wife Brandi, played by the always fantastic Aunjanue Ellis, was arguably one of the most memorable scenes in the film. It’s a shame that the power found in these moments was somewhat undermined by the monotony of the tennis narrative, which seemed to be simply documenting the timeline of Venus’s early tennis career rather than exploring the darker themes that plagued their rise to stardom. It would have been interesting to have more attention paid to the inherent racism that would have been found at the predominantly white middle-class tennis clubs that Venus and Serena competed at in their early years, as well as Richard’s experience living in Compton.
What the film lacks in script and plot it makes up for in acting. Despite Smith having already garnered two Academy Award nominations, he is rarely ever considered as a true dramatic actor. King Richard, however, will most certainly give him a third. Under all the bravado, Smith manages to skilfully convey Williams’s pain and anger as he desperately tries to make sure his children are given the opportunities that he never had. Ellis accompanies him beautifully, although at times trapped in the ‘supportive spouse who never speaks up until the end of the film’ role. And, in addition to the two leads, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as young Venus and Serena respectively. Although not awarded much dialogue, they both brilliantly convey their growing frustration with their father’s decisions – Venus in her desperation to play professionally, and Serena as she increasingly falls further into her sister’s shadow.
All in all, King Richard is what it says on the tin. The film provides a detailed timeline of Richard Williams’s role in the rise of the two tennis superstars, at times touching on deeper and more profound themes. However, it ultimately fails to go any further than the surface-level plot and, at the end of the day, is only saved by its acting. In essence, the film is merely a set up for Smith to nab that third nomination.