The climactic scenes in “King Richard” take place in 1994, as Venus Williams, 14 years old and in her second professional tennis match, faces Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, at the time the top-ranked player in the world. If you don’t know the outcome, you might want to refrain from Googling. And even if you remember the match perfectly, you might find yourself holding your breath and full of conflicting emotion as you watch the director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s skillful and suspenseful restaging.
You most likely know what happened next. Venus and her younger sister Serena went on to dominate and transform women’s tennis, winning 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them (plus 14 doubles titles as a team) and opening up the sport to aspiring champions of every background. (They are credited as executive producers of this film.) You might also know that those achievements fulfilled an ambition that their father, Richard Williams, had conceived before Venus and Serena were born.
In the years of their ascent, he was a well-known figure, often described with words like “controversial,” “outspoken” and “provocative.” “King Richard” aims in part to rescue Williams from the condescension of those adjectives, to paint a persuasive and detailed picture of a family — an official portrait, you might say — on its way to fame and fortune.
In modern Hollywood terms, the movie might be described as a two-for-one superhero origin story, in which Venus (Saniyya Sidney) takes command of her powers while Serena (Demi Singleton) begins to understand her own extraordinary potential, each one aided by a wise and wily mentor. But this is a fundamentally — and I would say marvelously — old-fashioned entertainment, a sports drama that is also an appealing, socially alert story of perseverance and the up-by-the-bootstraps pursuit of excellence.
It’s also a marriage story. When we first meet them, in the early 1990s, Richard (Will Smith) and his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), are living with five daughters in a modest bungalow-style house in Compton, Calif. He works nights as a security guard, and she’s a nurse. Their shared vocation, though — the enterprise that is the basis of their sometimes fractious partnership — is their children.
This is an all-consuming task: to bring up confident, successful Black girls in a world that is determined to undervalue and underestimate them. Tennis, which Richard chose partly because of its whiteness and exclusivity, is only part of the program.
The children — Tunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew), Lyndrea (Layla Crawford) and Isha (Daniele Lawson), along with Venus and Serena — lead highly structured, intensely monitored lives. (A disapproving neighbor calls the authorities, convinced that Richard and Oracene are being too hard on the girls.) This is partly protective, a way of keeping them away from what Richard ominously calls “these streets” — a menace represented by the hoodlums who harass Richard and the girls during practice sessions — but it also reflects his temperament and philosophy.
He likes slogans and lessons, at one point forcing the family to watch Disney’s “Cinderella” to teach the importance of humility. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is one of his favorite mottos. There is nothing haphazard or sloppy about “King Richard,” and it succeeds because it has a clear idea about what it wants to accomplish. The script, by Zach Baylin, is sometimes unapologetically corny — if you took a drink every time the Williams sisters say “yes, Daddy” you’d pass out before Venus won her first junior match — but the warmth and verve of the cast make the sentimentality feel earned.
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Smith, digging into Williams’s Louisiana accent and mischievous sense of humor, plays the character as a kindred soul of sorts — a charmer with a strategy. The white men who dominate the tennis world see him at first as someone to be brushed off or patronized. Later, when confronted with the undeniable and potentially lucrative fact of Venus’s talent, they are surprised to discover that Richard’s agenda doesn’t always align with theirs. Against the advice of two top coaches, he pulls Venus off the junior tournament circuit. He is unpersuaded by agents, sneaker executives and others who claim to have his daughters’ best interests at heart.
They see him, sometimes with affection, as stubborn and unreasonable, but he’s usually right. The film’s treatment of the coaches Paul Cohen (a suave, tan Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (a manic, mustachioed Jon Bernthal) is gracious and skeptical. They are neither saviors nor villains, but rather men whose stake in the tennis system limits their perspectives. (The white tennis parents, on the other hand, are a pretty awful bunch, encouraging their children to cheat and berating them when they lose.) The coaches can see Venus and Serena’s potential as athletes, but only within the parameters of a status quo that the sisters will soon demolish.
That, too, is part of Richard’s plan. But if “King Richard” were just the streamlined chronicle of his triumph — if there weren’t at least a twinkle of irony in the title — it wouldn’t be convincing. Smith shows his usual, disarming skill at tactical self-deprecation, but it’s Ellis and Sidney who provide the necessary complexity. Venus, after all, is the center of the narrative: it’s not only her career but also her growing independence and self-awareness that keep us interested in what happens next.
And it’s Oracene who stands as the film’s crucial internal critic, the person who can challenge Richard’s sloganeering, bring him down to earth, and point out his failings. At times, this can seem like too much of a burden. Fairly late in the movie, she lays into Richard about his failed business and the children he has had with other women — all of it new information for the viewer, none of it ever mentioned again. The scene is not powerful because it exposes less-than-admirable aspects of Richard’s character, but because it shows how raw, messy and difficult even an apparently functional and harmonious marriage can be. (It also may foretell Richard and Oracene’s eventual divorce, in 2002.)
In the best Hollywood tradition, “King Richard” stirs up a lot of emotion while remaining buoyant and engaging. It’s serious but rarely heavy. Richard’s advice to his daughters when they step out on the court is to have fun, and Green (whose credits include the impressive “Of Monsters and Men”) takes that wisdom to heart. This one’s a winner.
Rated PG-13. Brief violence, and some swear words and racial slurs. Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.