Reporting from the Telluride Film Festival.

There’s a not insignificant part of me that wants to reject King Richard. Here is the story of Venus and Serena Williams—two of the greatest tennis players to ever set foot on the court—filtered through the trials and tribulations of their father, Richard Williams. At best, the script feels like a mandate to focus not on the greatness of the girls but the man who made them great. At worse, King Richard feels like a Williams sisters approved revisionist take on dear old dad.

And yet, there’s Reinaldo Marcus Green’s direction, Robert Elswit’s cinematography, Pamela Martin’s editing, and Kris Bowers’ uplifting score. None of it is outstanding, but all of it works to make palpable the struggles, the victories, the setbacks, and the eventual triumphs. King Richard is like a player piano manufactured by Warner Bros. The notes are there even if the soul is absent. 

Written by Zach Baylin and executive produced by Venus and Serena Williams—which I assume amounts to a stamp of approval—King Richard centers on Richard Williams (Will Smith), Venus and Serena’s father. Richard is a man with a plan. Inspiration hit years ago when Richard watched a tennis tournament on TV and discovered that one of the participants earned $40,000 for four days worth of work. She didn’t win, and her name may not be on the tip of tennis fanatic’s tongues, but she did make 40K. That’s enough for Richard, and he immediately set about to A) Inform his wife (Aunjanue Ellis) that they need to have two more daughters and B) Find a way to make them tennis pros.

Does that line of thinking sound ridiculous to you too? But parents do it all the time. I have no idea what dreams my mother and father had when they gazed into my infant eyes, but I doubt weekly film critic was it. I had a decent arm when I was a kid; maybe Dad dreamed of a star ballplayer in the family. It was not to be. I do know that his father wanted one of his five sons to join the priesthood. None of them did. I wonder if gramps saw that as a failure on his part, their part, or something that just wasn’t to be.

Of course, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) Williams were to be era-defining tennis players. And Richard’s plan is a considerable part of their success, no doubt, but he’s also damn lucky that the two girls he tasked with becoming tennis champions wanted to become tennis champions. There’s another version of this story where Richard Williams pushes his daughters to practice, practice, practice. Serve, serve, serve. Volley, volley, volley. And then, when they get to the big climactic match, Venus turns to her father and says, “Daddy, I don’t want to play tennis. I want to dance!” It’s King Richard meets Billy Elliot, a story about stepping out from your father’s shadow and finding your voice. Sounds like a rousing good time, doesn’t it?

But that’s not what King Richard is. King Richard is about how Venus and Serena were willing to excel at school, put in the court time in Compton and Orlando, stick to their father’s plan, and become the best damn tennis players out there. Both Sidney and Singleton are convincing in their roles, as is Smith, who plays Richard as a man hunched over, the weight of his family’s future on his back. The world has beaten Richard down, but he still has that Will Smith twinkle. You can’t convince others until you first convince yourself.

And King Richard is convincing. If not as fact, then certainly as cinema—as a collection of shots and edits and sounds and performances designed to make you feel. What a remarkable art form movies are. No wonder governments and peoples have feared its power as propaganda since day one.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

King Richard (2021)
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Written by Zach Baylin
Produced by Will Smith, Tim White, Trevor White
Starring: Will Smith, Jon Bernthal, Aunjanue Ellis, Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney
Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Running time 138 minutes, Opens Nov. 19, 2021.