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King Richard.jpg

Review: 'King Richard' Serves Up a Fresh Take on the Sports Biopic

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | November 22, 2021 |

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | November 22, 2021 |

King Richard.jpg

There will certainly be those who say that King Richard is a typical biopic because it is glossy and feel-good, and Will Smith is clearly making an award-season run with his portrayal of Richard Williams, father and coach to Venus and Serena Williams. But in truth, the new film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell) from a script by Zach Baylin, is something significantly more special and intriguing, flipping the most trite and tired clichés of the genre on their heads to great effect.

Narratively speaking, centering Richard instead of Venus or Serena proves a smart move on two fronts. (The sisters are executive producers on the film.) The first is that it gives the film a fresh angle that differentiates it from the crowded field of sports-hero origins stories. The second is that the focus on Richard ultimately allows for a more dramatically complex story because Richard makes for a more dramatically complex character. Venus and Serena are beloved sports icons—heroes, plain and simple. Richard is something far trickier and far more conducive to shaping a dynamic story. A self-taught tennis aficionado with a checkered past and a single-minded determination (plus a 75-page plan) to see his daughters’ talent transform into professional tennis stardom, Richard is charming when he wants to be but also frequently abrasive. The film—though not immune from a somewhat rose-tinted outlook—avoids the most annoying trappings of hagiography.

Richard is not simply depicted as flawed; this film is one of relatively few biopics to actually go the distance and explore how his greatest strengths and significant failings are two sides of the very same coin. Richard’s extraordinary stubbornness enables him to will impossible opportunities into being for Venus and Serena, but it is a double-edged sword. He bulldozes over naysayers, but also his family; the same qualities that make it easy for him to brush off rejection are equally present in scenarios where this obstinance is decidedly less admirable. For instance, no sooner does Richard finally manage to set up Venus with a professional coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) who, recognizing her singular talent, agrees to take her on for free, that he begins antagonizing said coach with his constant critiques and running commentary throughout Venus’s practices. Smith excels as Richard, a character who suits his singular charisma while still feeling like a transformative role. The actor has had an unfortunate number of duds in recent memory, Bad Boys for Life notwithstanding, and King Richard feels like a return of a Smith who has not been seen since his 2000s heyday. It’s a welcome reunion.

Importantly, though, King Richard is also careful not to disregard the Venus and Serena of it all. Both girls have clear agency in their own stories, and their own compelling arcs within the film; furthermore, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as young Venus and Serena are both truly excellent. The title may be King Richard, but the film itself ultimately plays more like an ensemble piece.

Another massive biopic stereotype this film blessedly avoids is that of the emotional support wife, which is so prevalent in Great Man biopics that it somehow still manages to functionally exist in biopics where the man in question is gay and unmarried (see: Keira Knightley’s role in The Imitation Game). While at first glance, Oracene Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) feels like a very standard example of the supporting wife and mother stock figure type, a far more nuanced and interesting arc reveals itself over the course of the film, culminating in a verbal volley between Oracene and Richard as scintillating as any of the tennis matches.

And on the subject of tennis matches, King Richard is a tennis lover’s tennis movie. The tennis greats of the early 1990s are rendered here with incredible attention to detail in emulating both their play and fashion style. (That said, it’s worth noting that some of the tennis sequences do run overly long.)

Baylin’s script shows a great capacity for nuance where it matters most. The microaggressions and coded racism Venus and Serena face on and off the tennis courts are commendably handled, given significant weight without hitting viewers over the head in a pointlessly inauthentic fashion, as such films can sometimes be wont to do. The racist undertones in how the other juniors players (and their parents; all white) act—stomping and whining and making rude comments—is evident but unspoken, the double standards rendered clearly. Once upon a time, the legendary Billy Wilder gave the cinematic storytelling advice, “Let the audience add up two plus two, they’ll love you forever.” King Richard does this and does it well.

That said, overall the film’s greatest flaw is that does drag a bit. King Richard is a very good movie, but there’s an even better film that’s about 20 minutes shorter buried inside it. While the script does a solid job of communicating various themes in clear but commendably subtle ways, it also then repeats the same messaging very obviously—and unnecessarily. There’s an entire subplot involving a judgmental neighbor that feels like something that should have been left on the cutting room floor, as it contributes nothing to the plot and serves no real thematic purpose except flatly stating various arguments established elsewhere more compellingly.

King Richard avoids the tritest trappings still rampant in the biopic genre, but to be clear, it’s not truly trying to push boundaries or reinvent the form like Pablo Larraín’s anti-biopics (Spencer, Jackie, Neruda). Are there still chewy, awards bait-y scenes where Richard drops truth bombs that sound like they came straight off a motivational poster? Absolutely; most of these moments are in the trailers. This film is unabashedly Hollywood but in a way that serves as a reminder of how these formulas can be highly effective when utilized well. Sentimental but refreshingly even-handed in its exploration of a remarkable but deeply flawed individual, King Richard is a familiar tale of two sports heroines given an exciting new spin, and a welcome return to form for Will Smith.

King Richard is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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Ciara is one of Pajiba's film critics. You can follow her on Twitter.

Header Image Source: Warner Bros. Pictures