Will Smith and a Dazzling Cast Tell the Story of Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard

It hardly mattered whether you cared about tennis or not: In the mid-to-late 1990s, when Venus and Serena Williams blazed onto the scene, nearly everyone loved them—and those who didn’t were people you didn’t want to know. These young women were distinctive on the tiresomely chalk-white tennis scene because they were Black, and they’d come from Compton. However, they were both unstoppable as athletes but also charming and generous as people. Many young athletes appear to be more trained than they are raised. But something about these two suggested that, in addition to having been coached in their sport from a tender age by their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene “Brandy” Price, they’d also been brought up right. You might be interested to learn more about these superstars.
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That man, together with his wife, has now his own film. King Richard, in which he’s played by Will Smith. Reinaldo Markus Green is the director. (Monsters and Men). and writer Zach Baylin took some liberties with the facts; it’s always necessary to elide and condense for drama’s sake. But as a story of how two little girls worked hard for their success, supported and encouraged by parents who believed in them, it’s wholly satisfying; the picture skims along on its own ambitious energy, and on the strength of just about every one of its performances. It’s one of those crowd-pleasing movies that doesn’t make you feel embarrassed to be part of the crowd—you feel buoyed rather than talked down to.

Courtesy Warner Bros.Will Smith King Richard.

King RichardOpens with some traditional shoe-leather company. Smith’s Richard Williams—who, we learn, grew up in Louisiana before ending up in Compton, neither place particularly hospitable to a Black tennis fan—had a plan for his two daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) before they were even born: To turn them into champion athletes. To that end, he allows—or maybe urges—them to practice often, even during the rain, which raises an eyebrow or two in the neighborhood. Is this a form of child abuse? But the girls clearly love it, and the whole family joins in the act of spectatorship: Richard regularly packs the whole clan—all girls, five in total—into his van and heads off to the local, decidedly un-luxurious, tennis courts. Mother Brandy, played by Auntie Ellis in an impressive performance that brought the film to Earth as it was heading towards hagiography, seems to be chief breadwinner. However, she is called in to coach the team at crucial moments. Both are aligned with a single goal in sight, and Richard treks doggedly to one fancy white tennis club after another, seeking a good coach for his two budding stars, even though he’s unable to pay. Imagine how many people will say no to him, or even laugh at his jokes.

One coach, Tony Goldwyn’s Paul Cohen, finally takes notice of the girls’ gifts, though he’ll accept only one of them, and he chooses Venus. It’s her story that largely unfolds throughout King Richard, though the picture is so skillful that Serena rarely disappears from it: The film addresses her early disappointment without ever losing sight of the player, and the woman, she’ll eventually become. Sidney Singleton is a great choice for these roles. Venus and Serena, who are both ambitious and hardworking children, portray the role of kids. They also show joy in fulfilling their mission, which is one they have clearly set for themselves. There’s a lightness to these performances that you might not expect in a movie about two young people who will eventually become the very best at what they do; they’re humans, always, and never sports robots.

Courtesy Warner Bros.Demi Singleton and Will Smith, Saniyya Sydney King Richard

Mostly, though, this is Richard’s saga. Smith is one of those actors who’s so perpetually likable that many critics I know practically will themselves NotHe is a great actor. No matter what your opinion is about the movies he likes, or his overall talents as an actor, what he does, however, will always be appreciated. King RichardIt is amazing. We are on his side from the beginning thanks to this movie. His actions are grass-roots. He records amateur videos on the girls, and Xeroxes pamphlets praising their abilities. He carries them along, and he walks into every club in the white neighborhood, undeterred by any rejections. But when one prospective coach laughs at the video he’s made, something clicks on in him—a complicated blend of embarrassment and despair—and his eyes go suddenly, unbearably blank.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

The mood doesn’t last long. This complexity is essential for the film. It also needs to show us how overbearing Richard can be, and how he’s sometimes so goal-oriented that he doesn’t recognize certain things his girls—or, for that matter, his wife—need in the moment. Smith plays Richard’s proud-papa peacock act to the hilt—but without vanity, he also shows us this man’s stubborn, self-centered side. In the end, Richard Williams’ plan worked out—his girls became world champions. But he pulled off something else too: they became people we never want to lose sight of, people we care about whether they’re on the court or off. He’s a king who put queens before us, knowing how wonderful they were and certain that we’d see it too. He didn’t Make it happenHe created space to allow us to believe and be inspired by them. King RichardWe see how he battled for this space match after match.


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