King Richard (2021)
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenwriter: Zach Baylin
Starring: Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal
King Richard is the best sports movie of 2021. It is possibly in the top five sports movies made this century. The Williams sisters, revolutionaries in their own sport of tennis, are seemingly a labyrinth of intriguing titbits ready to mine for big screen material, but in Zach Baylin’s script their story is focused and powerful, and through Reinaldo Marcus Green’s eye their rough-around-the-edges upbringing is immortalised as a cornerstone of post-modern American Exceptionalism.
Two kids from the ghetto wouldn’t be able to make it anywhere else, or so King Richard would have you believe. Shootings, beatings, racial discomfort and drug use are common place, but in America anyone can make it if they try hard enough, and Richard Williams made sure that his daughters tried hard enough, enforcing strict regimental training from as young as five with the idea of one day seeing each of them make him and his family millions of dollars.
There’s little by the way of critique in this pseudo-biopic, Williams’ techniques rarely proven to be wrong and the girls themselves never seen to be opposing long and difficult training sessions or wanting any sense of usual childhood freedom. Even so far as other adults go, both within the film and from behind the camera, there is frighteningly little to confront the harsh reality of children designed to make it. But this isn’t a movie about those things, this is a celebration. It’s a celebration of the Williams sisters, yes, but more so the American Dream, and it is centred upon that most visible of topics that is never far from the core of any Will Smith movie: that working hard achieves success no matter your circumstances.
By all accounts a grifter, Will Smith’s Richard Williams is an unusually charismatic fellow who can seemingly talk his way into just about anything, including free training for his daughters, a house for his family, and even a motorhome. In King Richard he is seen constantly negotiating, whether it be with trainers, with prospective sponsors, with his neighbour, with bullies in his neighbourhood, or even his daughters. He’s always selling someone on something, including his family on the potential success of Venus and Serena Williams, but with destiny calling he is inevitably proven right in all of his prophecies, his actions (good and bad) reinforced by the end result of unrivalled success and the film’s myriad of sympathies.
Smith himself is at a career high in the lead role, transforming so close to the real Richard Williams that it’s almost frightening. The accent is spot on, the wide gait of his walk and stumbly attitude well presented, but Will Smith is Will Smith because of what he can do with his eyes, and so rarely before has so much been done to capture them communicating such sincere emotion. His is the performance that appropriately anchors the film, but special note must be made of the supporting cast who all offer outstanding turns, with the young Williams sisters (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) being particularly outstanding given their age; each as impressive at playing tennis as they are when performing deep moments of contemplation.
As is the case with most sports movies, there’s an inevitable pro-capitalist argument that underpins King Richard’s message of crossing divides by simply being exceptionally hard working. Here, class is barely present as a theme, but race is certainly a factor and is handled with dignity and class; there are no reasons to believe that you’ll be watching another stereotype-laden representation of Compton here, the camera indefinitely fixed on the perspective of its residents in the midst of a white-led world and the power that comes from the Williams sisters bursting in and rewriting the rule book.
King Richard isn’t the most rapid, emotionally-driven sports movie of all-time, nor is it any kind of deconstruction of sporting greatness, pushy parents, the real-life figure of Richard Williams or even the Williams sisters, it is instead a powerful do-it-yourself and burst-through-barriers feel-good story about two athletes it has taken much too long to immortalise in this way.
In the future, more could be done to speak of the sisters from their perspectives, to attempt to understand the immense pressures that went hand-in-hand with such an upbringing and the constant attention that their race brought to them as tennis stars, but for the sports movie King Richard is striving to be there is little to be disappointed about. This is one of those films that will force your fist into the air, that will inspire you; every scene radiates a sense of destiny written in the stars, one that we all wish we could see for own futures. For all that King Richard fails to confront, and for all the dangers that can be read into reinforcing ideas of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream in the face of each being under increasing scrutiny, there is something joyful, powerful and inspirational about this Oscar-nominated film that is bound to brighten a dark or uninspired few hours.