Movie Review: ‘King Richard’ takes admirable risks in telling the story of the Williams sisters and their father

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‘King Richard’ follows the story of Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. (Photo courtesy of Metacritic)

Myles Wolf, Movie Columnist

Typically, biographical sports dramas follow an athlete’s rise to stardom. “King Richard” focuses instead on a parent of two sports legends. It is the true story of Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena.

While “King Richard” follows the Williams sisters from their days in the ITF Junior Circuit up until Venus’s famous match against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in 1994, the film’s primary focus is on their father. This unconventional choice ultimately creates a very unique film that expands the boundaries of its genre.

Will Smith’s performance captures the inner conflicts of Richard Williams remarkably well. Smith works meticulously with his dialogue, incorporating subtle tone, inflections and posture to fully embrace his role on the screen. The role of Richard Williams demands much from Smith; he has to play the dedicated provider, the arrogant coach, the charming negotiator and the stubborn father. While some actors would buckle under the stress of these expectations, Smith juggles them so effortlessly that it was difficult to forget the man on the screen wasn’t the real Richard Williams.

Richard is a particularly compelling character. He not only led his daughters towards success, but he also shielded them from the hidden dangers of their neighborhood in Compton. There’s a pivotal scene where Richard confronts a gang member who made nonconsensual advances towards one of his underage daughters. While Richard is horribly beaten, he ultimately protects his children. It is a moment that highlights Richard’s commitment to ensuring his daughters’ safety.

I also appreciate that “King Richard” did not shy away from the racial prejudice inherent in tennis. The film shows white families resenting the success of the Williams sisters, whom they felt did not deserve to be there. Another impactful scene shows a white girl refusing to accept a second-place trophy after Venus wins her first tournament. This ongoing, insidious racism, coupled with the dangers of their neighborhood, makes the close-knit relationship between the Williams sisters more believable.

Smith’s performance as Richard Williams and the commentaries on the racism experienced by the Williams sisters are the best parts of the film; everything else is good, but not spectacular. Although the narrative works, it also feels slightly predictable. The actresses playing the Williams sisters demonstrate excellent tennis skills and are strong in humorous moments, but I found them less convincing during dramatic scenes. The film as a whole is strong; however, it has a very lengthy third act that I felt needed a little more cutting.

Ultimately, I feel “King Richard” is worth seeing for the strong performance by Smith and its themes of racial prejudice. It is by no means a perfect film, but I liked the risks it took very much.