King Richard

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Writer: Zach Baylin

Cast: Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn

Producers: Will Smith, Tim White, Trevor White

Music: Kris Bowers

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit

Editor: Pamela Martin

Cert: 12A (TBC)

Running time: 138mins

Year: 2021

What’s the story: Compton, Los Angeles, the early 1990s. Convinced that his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) are tennis prodigies, working class dad Richard White (Smith) battles against the odds so they can achieve their dreams. And his dreams?

What’s the verdict: Having received his first Oscar nomination in Michael Mann’s Ali back in 2002, Will Smith may finally walk away with the little gold man for his performance as Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena Williams.

From before they were born, Richard had set his mind on them becoming tennis stars, and so, with a 78-page plan as his tennis-coaching Bible, he set about making it a reality. Richard is a taskmaster, but not only to his kids. He spends his days on the rundown public courts with Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton); his nights working as a security guard, perusing tennis magazines in search of a coach for them. His wife Brandi (Ellis) looks after the other three girls, their education, and the household.

As a film, King Richard understands we already know where the Williams’ sisters – or at least two of the five – end up. The question is never their talent or, at least in the film’s early reaches, Richard’s strategy, but exactly how they’ll be able to gain access. It’s understandable that people are sceptical. As one coach points out to Richard, he’s claiming to have two Mozarts in one household. Given the odds against him as a working-class father of five living in Compton, it’s a testament to Richard’s character that he keeps pushing. The alternative, as he sees it, are the gangbangers hanging out at the tennis courts, paying unwanted, lascivious attention to his daughters.

As a man whose childhood was spent in Louisiana under the shadow of the Klan and whose present is backgrounded by the beating of Rodney King – “At least they got it on video this time”, Brandi observes – Richard isn’t about to let himself be intimidated by the country club set. Whether it’s the privileged parents pushing their less talented progeny to breaking point or the patronising money men treating it like a done deal, Richard treats them all the same – blithe, breezy, punctuated with disarming directness.

It’s to screenwriter Zach Baylin’s credit that the film never sanctifies Richard. He’s funny, he’s charming. He’s also difficult, unwilling to compromise, obsessed with an open tennis stance; all much to the chagrin of Brandi and a succession of illustrious coaches. Rick Macci (a befringed Jon Bernthal) in particular is a highly successful coach who, for the sake of the girls and their potential, and, yes, the money he sees in them, spends most of his time with Richard eating crow; stuck paying the bills even as Richard refuses to let the girls enter competitions. Meanwhile, the press debates over whether Richard is huckster or genius, self-interested or sacrificing. While the film may question his methods, it never truly doubts his motivations.

Reinaldo Marcus Garvey gives both the drama and tennis a dynamism, be it a offhand Will Smith zinger or the satisfying thwock of a tennis ball.

King Richard is not a hagiography, but a character study of a real character. A scene where Richard stands up to a Child Protection Services investigator, called in by a nosy neighbour, vehemently but not angrily justifying his parenting, encapsulates Smith’s approach. He is memorable but not showy, gifted with good material and committed to making the best of it.

Luckily, as with Venus and Serena, King Richard more than has what it takes.

Robert Wallis
Twitter: @robertmwallis

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