Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Will Smith has had an up-and-down career. From his catapulting success in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to his blockbusting movies in the 90s, as well as his hit music career, there was a feeling that he was going to keep churning out hit movies with hit songs forever. But, Big Willie had other ideas, he also wanted to be taken seriously. While his first foray Six Degrees of Separation didn’t really do much for him, his performance as Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s biopic got him a nomination for Best Actor, another one followed with The Pursuit of Happyness. After some high profile duds, and a weird personal life, it appears like Smith wants a shot at the big time again – enter King Richard.
The film follows the attempts made by Richard Williams to turn two of his five daughters into tennis superstars, one called Venus, and one Serena.
From the off, despite a skin tone issue from Smith (the real Williams is a much darker toned man), the film has a mission. It’s the story of how one man shaped his daughters into superstars by sticking to his own plan. The film makes a lot of his dedication to his own plan. Smith affects the voice and slight lisp-y way that Williams speaks very well and captures that determination.
It’s a very Will Smith role, one marked by a man’s desire to pull himself up from nothing – Williams’ works as a security guard, he’s done odd jobs, him and his wife run their household with a firm but loving hand. This is the sort of performance that Smith has always excelled at, the man with a plan and a desire to do better than society is offering him.
The supporting cast are also well placed, not least Saniyya Sidney as Venus. We know the woman she will become but there’s an element in her performance and the desire for Richard to keep her as a child – “have fun” is a repeated phrase in the film. Aunjanue Ellis gets the tougher role as matriarch Oracene Price, the Williams’ mother. Her character is given much to do except agree or disagree with Richard.
The script by Zach Baylin and the direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green are fine, sometimes stylish and offering some interesting moments but as the credits show both Williams’ sisters were involved in the production it’s clear this is the “official” version. There are also hints of a darker story; after the five Williams’ girls spend a car journey bragging about Venus’ victory Richard drives off and leaves them to walk home only for Oracene to demand he turn back.
One telling scene shows Richard watching the Rodney King beating on TV, his repeated desire not to have his girls end up as street walkers and to leave Compton. There’s also references to the multiple failed businesses and abandoned children Richard has, but the film doesn’t really want to deal with this. There’s jokes made about the fact that they’re the only Black people at these events, but there’s no exploration of the in built prejudice of the sport. Race became a large part of how well or badly both Williams’ were treated and judge.
Even so, Green manages to make the final tennis match a tense exchange, and fill it with tension even for those who know the eventual outcome of the game. What it doesn’t fully have is the desire to dig into the darker elements of the character and instead be a celebration. But, as a vehicle for Smith, this might herald a new Willennium, and it’s a perfect calling card for Sidney.