Will Smith is a leading contender to win his first Oscar in a role for which he changed his physicality, voice and vibe.
Whether you’re a tennis fan or not, King Richard is a successful film that serves up a story which looks at one of the unlikeliest success stories: how one man created two Mozarts under one roof.
That’s how one character put it to Richard Williams, the father of Serena and Venus Williams: that he was looking to craft not one but two masters. It wasn’t to be done. Except he did it.
He created not one but two tennis champions. A world number one with seven grand slam titles under her belt and another who is arguably the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen, with 23 grand slam wins.
Richard Williams didn’t hustle and raise two Mozarts, he hustled and raised two Williamses.
King Richard, starring Will Smith as the eponymous character, is the story of how his grit and determination conquered naysayers and even those who were in the girls’ corner.
But this isn’t some one-dimensional father-knows-best defence of Williams’ controlling personality. It’s a portrait of a flawed man who made mistakes, who didn’t always do the right thing on his own, who wasn’t an easy man to be married to, and who frustrated many people in his life.
Smith is triumphant in this demanding role, leaning into the complexity of Williams’ ambition for his daughters, grounded in a drive and belief that not only they be great athletes, but they be great, well-rounded people.
And woven into all that is the fact that his own past wasn’t easy, a black man born in the American south who wants a better life for his children. And someone who has his own regrets he has yet to fully confront.
Smith changed his physicality, voice and energy for the role but it’s the compassion he brought to his character that really elevates his performance. Especially when it would’ve been all too easy to caricature an over-the-top tennis dad.
The two young actors who play Venus and Serena, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton respectively, are both wonderful, burning with hunger for success but also love for their father.
King Richard spans the years between the Williamses’ childhood, endlessly practising come rain, hail or shine in the unkempt tennis court in their hometown of Compton, California through to working with prime coaches until Venus’ professional debut at 14 years old, and her match against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1994.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell) balances the sports drama aspect of the film well, sparing with the time on court so as to not de-emphasise the human story while laying throughout the behind-the-scenes theatre of contracts, sponsors and coaching philosophies.
But perhaps one of the most interesting threads of King Richard is how a black family conquered the very white sport of tennis, of how Williams pushed back on suggestions he sign his daughters up to basketball or how much they physically stand out at the country club.
It’s ever present but not domineering, and it really puts into context what a near insurmountable challenge he had, a challenge King Richard captures with panache.
King Richard is in cinemas now
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