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King Richard Movie Review

King Richard (2021) movie poster King Richard

Theatrical Release: November 19, 2021

Running Time: 144 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Writer: Zach Baylin

Cast: Will Smith (Richard Williams), Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene "Brandy" Williams), Jon Bernthal (Rick Macci), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams), Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), Tony Goldwyn (Paul Cohen), Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew (Tunde Price), Daniele Lawson (Isha Price), Layla Crawford (Lyndrea Price), Erika Ringor (Ms. Strickland), Kevin Dunn (Vic Braden), Brad Greenquist (Bud Collins), Christopher Wallinger (John McEnroe), Chase Del Ray (Pete Sampras)


With new stories from his memoir and the press appearances promoting it leaking out on a near-daily basis, this has become the Autumn of Will Smith. The coverage has raised a level of career retrospection we usually only get upon the death of a celebrity or at least a high-profile lifetime achievement award. Well, the 53-year-old rapper turned actor is gladly alive and well, although there’s an excellent chance that in a few months he’ll get an Oscar for Best Actor that has a touch of a lifetime achievement feel to it. The accolade would be well-deserved entirely on the basis of Smith’s bravado performance in King Richard,
not the Shakespearean tragedy the title suggests but the story of the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. It may not mean that much to call it one of the year’s best films in a year only slightly less strange and commercially hindered than last, but nonetheless this feel-good drama only invites positivity, the kind that has largely been absent from our cultural lives these past two pandemic-plagued years.

Smith plays Richard Williams, an overnight security guard who spends his days pushing his two biological daughters towards athletic greatness. The girls are highly driven to the same goal, which largely acquits us of parenting concerns. Still, the African-American family of seven lives in Compton, California, so their plan to deliver the next great tennis players seems far-fetched, at least to many of the coaches Richard pitches on video and in person to train his daughters for free. It takes a well-timed descent to a court where John McEnroe and Pete Sampras are practice sparring for the Williamses to land Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn, a solid turn from a largely forgotten pro), who sees the potential and agrees to coach the slightly older Venus for gratis.

As Venus (Demi Singleton) and, secretly, Serena (Saniyya Sidney) begin tearing up the junior leagues, Richard’s eyes remain squarely on the big picture, as he plans a way to maximize his daughters’ greatness and impact. The family moves down to Florida into a home paid for by their new long-term coach Rick Macci (a chipper Jon Bernthal), who is slightly flummoxed by how much Richard continues to call the shots. The patriarch is all in on his daughters’ dream and holds them out of competition until he believes they are ready to flourish.

Will Smith stars as Richard Williams, who trains his teenage daughters Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) to become tennis legends in "King Richard."

Some may question the decision to focus on the father instead of the two girls themselves who grew up and became two of tennis’ all-time greats, especially at a time when the film industry is at last recognizing how male-oriented it has long been. But any concerns are assuaged by watching this movie and seeing Smith shine. This is feel-good cinema done right, a perfect mix of inspiration and entertainment that one can only hope does not play free with the facts. We see Richard deterring advances made to his daughter from thugs who later abuse him and push him towards committing violence himself. It’s a dramatic experience that cannot be pure invention.

For his part, Smith hits it out of the park, adopting the language, posture, and short shorts of a figure that fans of either Williams sister must be somewhat familiar with. To a ‘90s kid, Smith was like the coolest guy around and his transition from NBC’s likeable “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, a sitcom that has aged well, into the star of blockbuster fare like Independence Day and Men in Black seemed effortless and inevitable. It was largely unprecedented for someone to move from music to acting with such dexterity (and he didn’t abandon music, churning out hits until the end of last Willennium), let alone for a person of color to succeed in movies to such a large degree.

For a long time, Smith was the king of summer, attaching his star to big high-concept genre flicks that always performed extremely well at the box office. Like Adam Sandler, Smith showed some stellar dramatic chops on occasion, but his lucrative bread and butter didn’t call for them so instead we got simply charismatic heroics in exciting adventures like I, Robot, Hancock, and I Am Legend. As those types of spectacular standalone four-quadrant pictures have largely disappeared in favor of branded franchises and cinematic universes (areas where Smith has also dabbled as the biggest star of recent hits Suicide Squad and Bad Boys 3), Smith has nothing to lose by throwing himself at a smaller passion project like this, which isn’t that small and could prove to turn a nice-sized profit for Warner Bros. Pictures on award season buzz and favorable word of mouth.

The Williams family admires one of Venus' many junior league trophies.

Others have had to do more to earn a lifetime achievement-flavored competitive Oscar. Martin Scorsese had to wow critics for over thirty years before winning one. Glenn Close and Amy Adams still haven’t won one despite more than ten nominations between them. Smith has been nominated just twice for those rare forays into serious acting, Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). But he’s also accrued a substantial cache of goodwill over the past thirty plus years. There have been some brushes with scandals – questions over his and Jada Pinkett Smith’s marriage and their ties to Scientology,
the nepotism phase when Jaden started getting lead roles and pushed towards the spotlight – but through it all, Smith has remained one of the most likable celebrities of our time and with more than a few fun adventures to his name. There are still movies to be seen, but barring any eleventh hour surprises, this award season seems poised to be one that Smith steamrolls through like Joaquin Phoenix and, less understandably, Rami Malek did in recent years.

It will be easy to get on board with that sentiment because King Richard is an awfully easy film to watch, recommend, and marvel at. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has risen quickly since making a name for himself on 2018’s indie Monsters and Men, already rebounding from the poor reception given Mark Wahlberg’s anti-prejudice drama Joe Bell earlier this year. Sure to join Green on the rise is first-time writer Zach Baylin, who has a background in set dressing and props and has already signed up to reteam with Warner on the script for Creed III.

What may prove to be a launchpad and crown jewel for it’s makers should emerge as one of the brightest crowd pleasers of the season for the rest of us.

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Reviewed November 18, 2021.

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