Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. Warner Bros. releases the film in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Friday, November 19.
Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars of the last 30 years, which is one of the reasons he’s never been particularly good at playing normal people. As a secret government agent saving the world from a giant alien cockroach, he was so believable that even Tommy Lee Jones took him seriously. As Muhammad Ali, he made embodying the Greatest seem like a lateral move. As a homeless medical device salesman in 1981 San Francisco, or, uh, whoever the hell he was supposed to be in “Seven Pounds,” it felt like Smith couldn’t stop himself from veering into a kind of doleful civilian drag, as if the only alternative he could imagine to being on top of the world was being at the bottom of it.
That’s reason enough to be nervous about the idea of Smith playing Richard Williams — outspoken father of Venus and Serena — in a studio biopic about his obsessive efforts to raise the greatest female tennis players of all time. Initially, watching Smith go from zero to full-blown caricature in the first scenes of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” appears to validate those concerns. So why, despite an exaggerated Louisiana drawl and a hunched posture so pronounced that you can practically see the weight of Williams’ insecurities crushing his spine, does Smith’s performance soon come to feel like it’s right on the line? The answer is in the regal title of Zach Baylin’s script, which betrays a truth that the rest of the movie backs up over and over again over the course of its swift 138-minute runtime: Richard Williams is not a normal man.
The first thing we learn about Venus and Serena’s father in the fully authorized, glossy-as-it-gets love letter they executive produced is that Williams wrote a 78-page plan outlining their entire careers before they were born. He heard a tennis player on TV say that she made $47,000 at a tournament, and decided that having a couple of them in the house wouldn’t be such a bad idea — even if that house is in Compton, a word that most of the sport’s coaches and commentators can’t even say without a detectable amount of topspin. “I’m in the champion-raising business,” Williams announces with a Svengali smile as he walks into all-white country clubs, handing brochures about his daughters’ talents to any of the bemused Chips and Todds who will take them.
Williams knows what people think — it’s hard to miss the inference when someone asks him if he’s ever considered basketball instead — but not even the Cylons were so committed to their plan. And Williams’ (five) daughters have no choice but to go along, even when they might suspect that their father’s hustle may be less motivated by their future potential as Black women in modern America than it does with his formative past as a Black man in the Jim Crow-era South. “No one has ever had any respect for Richard Williams,” he tells them, “but they’re going to respect you.” Later, in this breezy film’s most contentious rally, Venus and Serena’s mother (an indomitable Aunjanue Ellis) offers a pointedly different perspective on her husband’s priorities.
“King Richard” is happy to unfold as hagiography for most of the movie, and even the scenes in which Williams’ eccentricity borders on perversion are defanged by our knowledge that Venus and Serena turned out to be (ahem) pretty decent tennis players in addition to brilliant moguls and excellent ambassadors for Black girls the world over (Baylin’s script ensures that each facet receives its fair share of earnest lip service.) In fact, Green’s biopic is so light on its toes that Smith is able to spend most of it in a comic register; his pissing contests with the girls’ high-profile coaches (Tony Goldwyn and a hilarious Jon Bernthal) are full of well-honed laughs, as is the scene where he ends a sponsorship meeting by literally farting away a six-figure deal. Robert Elswit’s warm and inviting cinematography seems to take its cues from these moments, always emphasizing potential over pressure, and hope over desperation. That’s one of many reasons why “King Richard” is such an easy film to sit through: The film embodies its namesake’s oft-repeated — if increasingly suspect — ethos of making sure that fun comes first.
To Smith’s credit, Richard himself offers some much-needed shading to a movie that’s happy to valorize him as a visionary while eliding some of the less-inspirational aspects of his life (a disowned son is mentioned in a throwaway line; other Wikipedia-worthy wrinkles are smoothed out entirely). If the screenplay is slow to recognize that Williams could sincerely love his daughters and be pathologically self-absorbed, Smith’s performance doesn’t allow for any such mutual exclusivity. From his waddle to his obstinance and angry outbursts, Smith renders Williams as a larger-than-life figure locked in an endless tiebreak with his own sense of worth. He’s a stubborn, controlling, and unfathomably tenacious man whose success left behind just enough friction to justify being the subject of his very own biopic.
“King Richard” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, November 17.