Will Smith serves a winner as Venus and Serena's father in 'King Richard'

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

The story of the Williams sisters' ascendancy to domination in the sport of tennis is one of those unbelievable tales that no fiction writer would dream up, and it’s due, in large part, to their father, Richard Williams. A larger-than-life character and determined dreamer, Richard set his sights on his daughters becoming tennis champions (the greatest of all time, even) and then drew up a 78-page plan to make it happen. The craziest thing? The plan worked, as depicted in the new biopic “King Richard.”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, “King Richard” is a big, traditional crowd pleaser. It doesn’t innovate the sports movie formula, but it works because star Will Smith is right in the pocket as Richard Williams. He’s adopted a folksy Louisiana drawl, as well as a specific posture and gait to portray the driven Richard, who shrugs off ridicule, misunderstanding and even violence in his mission to guide Venus and Serena into tennis domination.

Smith is supported by strong performances from Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena, as well as Aunjanue Ellis as his wife Oracene “Brandy” Williams. Smith is locked into his character, and Ellis shines as the emotional center of the film and the one person who is able to keep Richard in check (something not one of the high-profile white tennis coaches he seeks out is able to do). Green’s straightforward and unobtrusive approach to cinematic style allows the performances to come forward and take center court.

Will Smith, center, with Demi Singleton, left, and Saniyya Sidney in a scene from "King Richard." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Audiences may question why one would make a movie about superstars Venus and Serena Williams that uses their father as the focal point, but as the film depicts their upbringing as tennis phenoms (without getting into their adult careers), the story is about Richard and his unconventional dreams for his daughters, taking them from the gang-ridden tennis courts in Compton to the highest levels of tennis coaching with Rick Macci in Florida (Jon Bernthal gives an energetic and inspired performance as Macci).

Richard’s life story is indeed remarkable. Raised in the violent racism of the Jim Crow South, he had the gumption to coach his young Black daughters in a sport typically reserved for lily-white country clubs. Venus and Serena took the tennis world by storm thanks to their own hard work, talent and effort, but Richard Williams set them up to be there, pushing his daughters with a combination of constant positive affirmations and unconditional love. Both Williams sisters, as well as their half-sister, serve as producers on the film, and the story isn’t just about Richard, it’s about the family moving forward together toward this shared goal.

Will Smith stars in "King Richard." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Richard’s not perfect and the film doesn’t pretend that he is, though it elides some of the more complicated biographical details to focus on the tennis. He makes mistakes, he frustrates his family and bedevils the coaches he’s goaded into taking on his daughters. Some may think this is a hagiography of Williams, but the film seeks to be an honest and humane portrait, not a lionization.

Ultimately, what “King Richard” underscores is that the story of Venus and Serena Williams is a one-in-a-million tale, and that their success in the sport of tennis is not something to be taken for granted. It’s an apt reminder, and a tribute to the power of Richard Williams’ dreams and drive that he made this moonshot a reality.

‘KING RICHARD’

2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references)

Running time: 2:18

Where to watch: In theaters and on HBO Max Friday