King Richard

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There's something very odd about the existence of King Richard. Tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams are right there, but Warner Bros. decided to make a movie about their father instead. Yes, his story is interesting – and certainly integral to theirs – but one has to wonder why the film wasn't told through their eyes, with him as a key supporting character rather than the other way around. Even if it doesn't entirely make sense, King Richard proves to be an inspiring true-life tale about the power of unwavering determination.

Will Smith plays Richard Williams, a man who lives in Compton with his wife Brandy (Aunjaneu Ellis) and their five daughters. He's written down a plan for each of them, all designed to propel them to success. For Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), his plan involves turning them into the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen. As the movie opens, he's trained the girls pretty well, yet needs a professional coach to carry them forward. No one he approaches shares his confidence. A racial component is there, too. The coaches in the mostly-white sport simply don't take two Black girls from Compton seriously.

Eventually, Richard convinces Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) to take Venus on. He's fresh off major success with Jennifer Capriati, and can see the potential in his new pupil. For most people, that would be a win. Not for Richard. He's as hard on Rick as he is on his daughters, demanding that everything be carried out a certain way – his way – no matter what. When that entails refusing to let Venus compete in the Juniors competition that is considered a necessary conduit to success, trouble really begins.

King Richard is very much about its central character's style. He's got an admirable goal. Not only does he want his girls to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, he insists that they maintain top grades and engage in morally correct conduct. Richard is always there, pushing, prodding, and giving lectures about how staying the course will “keep you off of these streets.” But there's a flip side to that, which is that his my-way-or-the-highway approach rubs a lot of important people, including Brandy, the wrong way. Richard is so single-minded that there's rarely room for negotiation, much less taking his daughters' feelings into consideration.

Will Smith is terrific in the lead role. The actor has never played someone like this before, and he effectively conveys Richard's incessant drive, as well as the need for personal attention that underlies it. To Smith's credit, he's not afraid for the audience to become as frustrated by Richard's stubbornness as the other characters are. For that reason, the movie works as a psychological portrait of a guy who trusts his own instincts above all else.

The scene-stealer is Sariyya Sidney. This young actress, who previously appeared in Denzel Washington's Fences, beautifully captures Venus's acceptance of her father's plan. She trusts him, a fact that allows her to believe in herself. The performance is particularly strong in the movie's final act, as Venus takes part in a tournament that will either make or break her. Sidney is entirely credible in the tennis scenes, which adds exponentially to the overall effect.

King Richard has plenty of compelling drama, solid characterization, and moments of humor. Where it falls short is in pulling back from fully digging into the reactions of other people to Richard's demanding nature. They show frustration, yet surely in real life there would be far more intense clashes than what we see here. The screenplay also leans a little too heavily on dialogue that foreshadows what the audience already knows. For example, when Rick (referring to Venus) tells Richard that he has “the next Michael Jordan” on his hands, he replies, “No, I've got the next two.” Racism faced by the Williams sisters, meanwhile, is glossed over, robbing the film of an important component.

Those are not insignificant issues. Nevertheless, King Richard does provide sufficient entertainment as an uplifting sports-related drama, thanks to strong performances and the overall stirring nature of this true story. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell), it's a good movie that could – and probably should – have been great.

out of four

King Richard is rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references. The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.