King Richard (Review): The Remarkable Origin of Tennis Royalty

I didn’t know Venus and Serena Williams had such an exceptional origin story (and father). Read on for my thoughts about King Richard

Richard Williams (the titled King Richard) wrote himself an 85-page plan when his daughters were born, outlining their future paths to success. Richard was convinced that Venus and Serena would become tennis superstars. Just a couple problems: they were a poor black family from Compton, entering a sport played (mostly) by well-off white athletes. The Williams’ barely had money for tennis equipment, and certainly not enough to hire a professional coach, but their tenacity created two of the best players to ever grace a court.

King Richard hooked me in from the start. It dives right into the story, wasting no time with its setup. Richard is established as a driven and resourceful man, but one who people don’t take seriously. His primary goal: to find a coach who will take on Venus and Serena free of charge. Some dismiss him because of his social class, or racial prejudice, and some simply don’t like his pitch. But Richard handles these setbacks with humility and grace.

The film’s first act efficiently establishes a sense of place and stakes. What is Compton like at this period of time? And how does the Williams family environment shape them? The family faces multiple hardships from their vicinity, including violent run-ins with neighbourhood toughs and nosy neighbours who try to tear them apart. Richard feels strongly that tennis will not only be the Williams’ ticket to success in the long term, but that it will keep Venus and Serena off the mean streets and help them to survive.

The Williams Family (in King Richard) at a tennis match.

I was emotionally invested in this tale by the end of its first act. Even though I know the rough trajectory (’cause it’s just history), I needed to see how the story played out. And King Richard doesn’t disappoint! This journey to success wasn’t easy, and the Williams’ faced many hardships along the way. But that just makes their ultimate fates all the more compelling!

One thing I found refreshing: though King Richard dealt with weighty subject matter and themes, it didn’t get bogged down in self-seriousness. There’s plenty of levity to balance the drama (without undercutting it), the family has sweet bonding moments (as well as internal conflict), and its characters championed respectable ideals like sportsmanship and humility (although they weren’t perfect people who always lived by those ideals).

Shifting to the characters and actors now: Richard Williams came across as a complex human being. While he undoubtedly loved his daughters, he also comes under fire for his treatment of them. Some say he over-works them, and other say he pushes their natural talents for his OWN benefit. And though the film paints Williams in a largely positive light, these assertions may still be true. He seems to ignore his less talented children and he loves the spotlight. Williams is also a stubborn and arrogant man (to a certain degree), insistent that he knows better than professionals.

Will Smith was exceptional in this film. He conveys his trademark charm alongside a desperation which I’m not used to seeing from him. Smith is usually the coolest guy in the room but nobody respects Richard Williams. Will Smith tends to play some version of himself in a lot of movies, but he fully embodies King Richard and gives this thing his all.

Jon Bernthal (way nicer than usual) in King Richard.

Speaking of actors who usually play certain types of character: it freaked me out to see Jon Bernthal a friendly tennis coach (Rick Macci). I’m used to him being a hardened badass. But Bernthal was fantastic comic relief in the back half of the film. His exasperation towards Richard was priceless. You feel for the guy.

Aunjanue Ellis maintained a steady, yet subtle role as Richard’s wife– Brandy Price. She’s the unsung hero of the Williams family whose sacrifices are mostly relegated to the background. The moments where she speaks up for herself are some of my favourites in the film. That’s because she often serves to challenge Richard’s decisions in logical ways, which interrogates Richard Williams’ worldview. Brandy is the main reason we get to see Richard’s shortcomings as a human being (yet reinforce what we admire about him).

This child actors were good– Saniyya Sidney as Venus being the standout– but I don’t have much to say about them. They were likable and easy to root for. Each of them pulled off what was required, though arguably not much more.

KR also tackles big themes/ concepts such as: what priorities parents ought to push on their children for future success (physical or mental prowess), how soon children should be put into a global spotlight, the dangers of parents living vicariously through their kids, and how hard kids ought to be pushed before they’re in danger of burning out. I respect KR for giving a clear stance on most of these ideas. It didn’t fence-sit on its morality, or fail to follow through on its concepts.

Well, it’s not a fence in this picture, but they’re on one side or the other, see?

King Richard‘s sound design stood out– if only in one way. Multiple scenes feature a moment before important serves, where audio is minimized and the ball takes prominence. We, like Venus and Serena, are forced to focus on the action. I consider this an example of great film-making! Tricks like this build connection from our world to that of the characters, and that’s the whole point of cinema

Finally (for good points), King Richard covered a good length of narrative time. Most biopics get too ambitious and try to cover people’s entire lives. This one focused heavily on a couple of important years.

Though I appreciated King Richard‘s focus, it felt too long. The scenes in Compton and KR’s final act were its best, but there’s a section in between them which dragged. That point of the movie wasn’t so efficient at conveying its message as the first act (which I lauded earlier).

And I was surprised that KR focus on Venus WAY more than Serena. I get that Venus was a little older and had more pressure on her, but Serena has more name recognition. I’m only a casual tennis fan, so the idea of a Serena Williams origin story intrigued me. Truth be told, I didn’t even know who Venus was before the film. And I’m glad I learned something new, but I would have liked to see Serena’s story fleshed out too. As it stood, it felt like she had a whole subplot playing out in the background of which we only get a short glimpse.

What we have here is a down-to-earth and emotionally stirring sports story. King Richard stands as a testament to the values of idealism and hard work in a world where privilege so often works as a shortcut to success. Nobody ever said finding that success was easy: but determination and honest effort aren’t for nothing.

King Richard is stirring; it’s inspiring; and it’s Pretty Darn Good.

Which other athletes (or athletically adjacent people) should receive biopics? What did you think of King Richard? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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