At the time of writing, King Richard has scored six Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture and the much-deserved Best Actor for Will Smith (more on this later).
In King Richard, we first learn that Richard (Smith) is very determined to train his respective little daughters (Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton) in tennis sport on the public court near their home in Compton. This happens to be part of Richard’s 78-page manifesto, where he already planned earlier with his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) even before their aforementioned daughters were born.
The film also detailed how Richard first lands Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), a top tennis coach who trained the likes of Pete Sampras (Chase Del Rey) and John McEnroe (Christopher Wallinger). Cohen is particularly impressed with Venus’ extraordinary talent when she showcases her tennis skill on the court and agrees to coach her. Under the guidance of Cohen, it doesn’t take long before Venus finds immediate success competing in local junior tournaments, winning trophies after trophies.
King Richard even features Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), a tennis coach who has his own training academy in Florida and happens to coach young sensation Jennifer Capriati (Jessica Wacnik) as well. Then in 1994, we see Venus competing in her first pro tournament at the tender age of 14.
The film certainly made a bold move telling the incredible true story from the perspective of their father, Richard (Will Smith) instead of focusing on the two well-known tennis greats, Venus and Serena Williams. It may seem like a risky storytelling approach but it somehow works since it’s nice to see how Richard plays an integral role in shaping his two talented daughters into future tennis pros.
Speaking of Richard, Will Smith’s return to playing a prestige-drama role after spending the last few years appearing in mainstream blockbusters (2016’s Suicide Squad, 2019’s Aladdin and last year’s Bad Boys for Life, just to name a few) is a welcome change of pace. He reminds us that he is more than just a charismatic entertainer, which most of us have grown accustomed to. Here, he doesn’t do the usual Will Smith acting routine if you know what I mean as he completely inhabits his role in King Richard. I love the way he portrays such an outspoken, stubborn and egoistic father who is very firm with his belief and decision because he knows what’s best for his daughters. This is undoubtedly his best performance to date since his Oscar-nominated turn in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006).
Although Smith excels the most in King Richard, the film doesn’t forget to give enough space for Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton to hold court (no pun intended) — two relative newcomers who deserved equal mentions in their respective roles as Venus and Serena Williams. While the film focuses mostly on Venus, Demi Singleton still manages to make a lasting impression as the frustrating Serena, who doesn’t get the same chance as her older sister does. It also helps that these two share terrific chemistry whenever we see them together onscreen. The rest of the supporting cast is just as great, namely Aunjanue Ellis in what could have been a thankless obligatory-wife role as Oracene but I’m glad she plays her character well enough. Then, there’s Jon Bernthal, who shows up midway with his engaging supporting turn as coach Rick Macci.
The story, however, is nothing more than your standard biopic formula with some of the scenes feeling perfunctory (the earlier moments about Richard facing the rough neighbourhood in Compton come to mind). King Richard tends to suffer from a lengthy runtime, which could have benefitted with some tighter edits. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green of 2018’s Monsters and Men fame does a good job handling the dramatic moments and bringing out the best in his cast. But the way he directs the tennis sequences turn out to be a mixed bag, where most of them either look visually rigid or repetitive and could have used some creative camera angles. This is particularly evident during the climactic tennis match and although there’s a fair amount of suspense here, Green could have done better to make the sequence as cinematic as possible.
Although King Richard is far from the great biopic that I hope to be, the film remains a crowd-pleasing drama with above-average performances all around.