I’m in the champion-raising business, says Richard Williams – a declaration that might have been dismissed as a doting father’s delusion were it not for the fact that his daughters turned out to be tennis greats Venus Williams and Serena Williams.
The Oscar-nominated King Richard traces the path plotted and tightly controlled by Richard (Will Smith) and walked upon by Venus (Saniyya Sidney). Like the Hindi movie Dangal, King Richard stops at the threshold of international stardom, at the point where Venus makes her debut as a professional player. The younger daughter Serena (Demi Singleton) waits in the wings (possibly for her own much-deserved biopic).
The Williams’ efforts to surmount race and class – huge obstacles in the early 1990s, when the film is set, as they are now too – drive Zach Baylin’s engrossing screenplay. Richard is self-taught coach, taskmaster and hustler with an unshakeable belief in his daughters’ talent. Impervious to comments that he is overbearing and a huckster, Richard wheedles and bullies his way from modest community centres to the elite coaching academies that churn out the champs.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s biopic manages to smuggle a few warts into a largely uncritical narrative. You have to look hard to find them, given that the film has been produced by Will Smith and executive-produced by the Williams siblings.
Some of the tensions arise from Richard’s spats with his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), among the few people who can challenge Richard’s micromanagement. In a film that insists that daddy knows best, Brandy strikes a rare note of dissent.
King Richard gets richer when it turns its attention to Venus. Saniyya Sidney beautifully conveys Venus’s evolution from giggly teenager into composed individual who learns to handle immense expectations.
The engaging cast includes Jon Bernthal as Venus’s coach Rick Macci, who butts heads with Richard ever so often. Will Smith parleys his geniality into a half-finished portrait that ignores the shades and shadows and finds ways to flatten Richard’s contradictions and complexities. Despite frequently wallowing in hagiographical territory, director Green ensures that the tennis is thrilling, the Williams family dynamic is compelling, and the audacity that led to glory is at the centre of the court.