- Emma Simmonds
- 15 November 2021
Will Smith bags a great role as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, in an entertaining biopic
Following a pair of previous nominations (for The Pursuit Of Happyness and Ali), Will Smith makes his latest Oscar bid, stepping into the trainers of the remarkable and unashamedly unconventional Richard Williams, father of tennis greats Venus and Serena. With the siblings onboard as executive producers and their attorney half-sister Isha Price (who brought her family the script) a more regular and active presence on set, this biopic seems to have the blessing of the Williamses, indicating a measure of authenticity as well as a possible sugar-coating of events.
It's the latest from filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters And Men, TV's Top Boy), with a script by Zach Baylin, and focuses on the childhood success of Venus and Serena (played by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton). We watch as they make the transition from training on a neglected Compton court with Richard and their mother Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) to being taken on by Paul Cohen and Rick Macci (played by Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal respectively), the coaches of Pete Sampras and Jennifer Capriati. There are triumphs for both girls in the junior tournaments, before Richard goes against the advice of the professionals, after being spooked by the struggles of Capriati, and takes his foot off the accelerator.
The story of the history-making Williams sisters is undoubtedly an important one and King Richard gets great mileage out of how unusual their circumstances were given the elite nature of the sport in question, and provides enough context on Richard's personal motivations and background. There's huge satisfaction watching these two working class African American girls easily beat their exclusively white, privileged competition, and the film makes much out of how unpleasantly pushy the other parents are compared to the warmth and protectiveness of the Williams brood, perhaps to the point of implausibility.
If it's a largely very respectful portrayal, briefly addressing some of the less palatable aspects of Richard's personality bears some fruit and although there's a bit of showboating from Smith, for the most part he credibly brings to life a stubborn but formidably determined personality, as the film draws attention to Richard's internal conflict and sometimes hypocritical actions. The biggest issue is the marginalising of the future superstars themselves, whose perspective is rarely offered and who, despite the best efforts of Sidney and Singleton, are merely painted as blandly, blindly obedient, with little to differentiate them personality-wise; the film never really shows them suffering from the pressure or pushing back. King Richard is polished and uplifting awards-season fare that delivers heartily on entertainment value and feel-good moments, yet feels a touch too removed from reality.
Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 19 November.