King Richard

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Written by Zach Baylin

Starring Will Smith, Anujanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal, Dylan McDermott, Kevin Dunn

“Goals may give focus, but dreams give power.” ~ John C. Maxwell

Serena and Venus Williams are known the world over. There is something to be said for their passion and dedication to the sport of tennis, an elite event, much like golf, that a very privileged few have the opportunity to demonstrate on the world stage. Serena and Venus ignite fans’ passions, not because of their winningness but their attitude toward the sport.

They wouldn’t be the athletes they are without the foresight and determination of their unconventional father, Richard Williams, who changed the sport, an angle explored through Reinaldo Marcus Green’s biopic, “King Richard.” Will Smith plays the titular character in a steady, dour way, something we’ve seen from him in prior roles. What makes his take on the role of importance is the passion with which the actor-producer approaches the story.

Richard knows that he needs to provide for his family, living in a small home in Compton, California. Constantly under threat by the local gangs, he pushes his family, mainly his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), to perform at their best, not only in sports but in academics. Zach Baylin’s script makes it a point to demonstrate their living conditions; a large family living in a small bungalow, parents working odd shifts replete with visits from social workers and nosey neighbors. You have to respect Smith for taking on this kind of role, which felt rote; however, the actor’s commitment to the nature of the character is the poker face with which he hides his emotions and the sheer determination for the betterment of his kids. Interestingly, Richard wouldn’t rest until his girls, especially, had the skills to stand up to compete in 1994.

The story teaches hard lessons, fueled through tragic events dotting their lives. Venus and Serena are nothing without the nurturing love of their mother, Oracene “Brandy” Price played with a quiet fierceness by Aunjanue Ellis. The strain of Richard’s steadfastness takes a toll on the family, especially their relationship, with Richard taking every moment featured in the film as a teaching moment or learning lesson.

That’s the beauty in Green’s direction; “King Richard” focuses on Richard’s efforts to prepare his girls for their time in the spotlight and how to use it. Often though, “King Richard”‘s story feels like a competition without a player on the opposite side of the court to return a volley. By nature, I am not a competitive individual, nor am I athletically gifted (I often tripped over my own two feet and scored a goal for the other team when I was a kid). The beauty of Richard’s dealings with coaches like Paul Cohen, played by the snarky Tony Goldwyn and especially with Jon Bernthal’s Rick Macci, were lost on me. The performances, though, define “King Richard,” and the story’s themes are life lessons for anyone.

The third act is where the film shines, offering audiences a feel-good moment, not before a piece of drama unfolds between husband and wife.

If anything, “King Richard” exemplifies why Venus and Serena are the icons that they are. They wouldn’t be who they are without Richard, and while the film doesn’t exactly paint Richard in the best of light, the film has enough courage and conviction to prove the man right. The Oscar push for Smith’s Best Actor nod is not without merit. Outside of the universal themes, Smith, Ellis, and Bernthal are the best aspects of an otherwise consistent, if not overly ambitious, melodrama.

Now in theaters, “King Richard” is Recommended.

PG-13, 138 minutes, Warner Bros.