Of all of Will Smith’s performances over the years, the role of Richard Williams in “King Richard” may be the most memorable — primarily for who he isn’t in the film.
Gone is the arrogant, bad boy persona of uber cop Mike Lowery from the “Bad Boys” films. The likeable confidence of Capt. Steve Hiller in “Independence Day?” Vanquished. And the brashness that accompanies all of those other traits in his portrayal of Muhammad Ali? They’re put in the rearview.
As Williams, there exists only a hint of confidence and much nobility as the father of tennis phenoms Venus (Saniyaa Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton) in this compelling film that manages to avoid cliché to present a story that holds your interest despite knowing the outcome. No, it’s not perfect, but Reinaldo Marcus Green, who directs from a script by Zach Baylin, shows plenty of skill and has enough confidence in the material to know that he’s got a winner on his hands.
In the world of sports — not just tennis — sports, the Williams sisters earned iconic status because of the barriers they broke and their respective achievements. Growing up in the Black enclave of Compton, California, they took the traditionally white tennis world by storm and jumped through each hoop and hurdle put before them.
The story is tailor made for movies and the role of Richard is the type made for an actor such as Smith who seeks a role that allows him to showcase more than 30 years of acting skills.
That’s not to suggest Smith lacks the ability to play a leading man any longer (after all, “Bad Boys 4” is in the pipeline), but playing a father trying to keep his daughters safe and sane on multiple levels gives him something substantive to chew on.
And keeping them safe isn’t just a matter of making sure their economic circumstances don’t swallow them whole. It’s also doing what’s right for them after he gets Venus two of the best tennis coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) in the game to guide her. Serena’s tutelage would come later. Williams’ mantra: Let his daughters have as much of a regular life as possible. In adapting that attitude, he kept him off the junior circuit, much to the dismay of both those coaches.
For those looking for the film to focus on Serena, arguably one of the best athletes in history, do not go in with those expectations. Green and Baylin take a calculated risk in not doing so. This is Richard Williams’ film and how he and wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) guided their daughters is the primary focus along with Venus’ rise in a balanced presentation.
While protecting their daughters from the sharks in the streets and the racism found on the tennis circuit is paramount, those issues do not dominate the film. They’re handled deftly, mostly with subtlety and respectfully, so as to not lose the essence of the story.
When talk of representation of Black stories is at an all-time high, Baylin’s script balances those elements. The truth isn’t skirted, but as judged by the Williams sisters’ success, it did not define them.
In Smith, Green and Baylin find a willing, enthusiastic collaborator, who based on watching footage from over the years, nails Richard Williams’ quirks, but more importantly, he humanizes an individual who was often painted as difficult in interviews.
They deserve even more credit for making Oracene more than window dressing and Ellis, (“Lovecraft Country”) who never got the opportunities to shine as she does here, ensure she pops in every scene she appears, whether she’s serving as her daughters’ rock or chastising her husband.
As for the young ladies who portray the Williams sisters: Green and Baylin did well in casting. Expect to see them again in other films.
Smith may be the star, but “King Richard” represents a collaborative effort that creates an uplifting story to be enjoyed.