Game, set, match: ‘King Richard’ rewrites sports flick tradition 

Scene from the film King Richard
Warner Bros./Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

“King Richard” opens by following its titular character, Richard Williams (Will Smith), as he hawks his 78-page plan for tennis domination to the privileged and unsuspecting country club members. His Louisiana accent and brazen confidence voices over affluent suburbia, unrelenting in its belief of inevitable success. The thesis is clear — practice may make perfect, but family and determination make Williams. 

To call the tennis careers of sisters Venus and Serena Williams “groundbreaking” would be a grotesque understatement. Over the course of their nearly 3-decade-long careers, the sisters have redefined the tactical mind game of tennis and reshaped it in their image. A cinematic telling of the pair’s steady climb to global stardom could have easily cemented itself as the quintessential sports flick. But for director Reinaldo Marcus Green, “King Richard” rejects the expected, depicting the Williams family as more than their tennis powerhouse duo. 

Despite what the sporty premise suggests, above all, “King Richard” explores the strength of familial love. Between practice sessions and junior tournaments, the film is at its best when depicting the whole Williams family piled into their VW bus, quipping and squabbling as all families do.

Portraying Venus and Serena are Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, whose on-screen charisma and chemistry push an already joyous film to positively heartwarming new heights. The love the two sisters hold for one another radiates from the screen, basking the film in its warm glow. It’s like honey — soft, sweet and can’t seem to help but stick on to everything it touches. 

Smith, too, serves as a source of the family atmosphere encapsulating the flick. He is no stranger to depicting fatherly love on the big screen, with his portrayal of Chris Gardner in “The Pursuit of Happyness” turning 15 years old this year. In “King Richard,” however, his performance is distinct. Where Smith’s Gardner was quietly strong, his Williams is a force of nature; his affection is both tough and soft, manifested in loud, proud and fierce unconditional protection. 

As any great biopic should, “King Richard” manages to transport its audience straight into ‘90s Americana — with nylon tracksuits and primary colors galore. Cinematographer Robert Elswit makes use of soft lighting and low saturation to visually sell the decade. With the fast-paced action saved for the courts, Elswit’s work is a warm hug of nostalgic bliss. 

The film, however, is not without flaws — though it does tend to ignore those of its main character. In the third act, as the film reaches its emotional climax, Richard’s wife Oracene Price (Aunjenue Ellis), confronts some of the hypocrisy of his mantra and selfishness of his actions in the kitchen of their new Florida home. Ellis delivers a stellar performance over the biopic’s entirety, but it is in that much-needed refresher of a monologue that she truly shines. 

This, however, isn’t enough to make up for an otherwise slight refusal to face Richard Williams is, like any human being, flawed. Everything brought out in the kitchen scene is promptly forgotten scenes later. It seems as if Green wanted to create a complex character without fully diving into what that complexity means. 

This is not to say the film is without depth. The Williamses certainly didn’t have it easy, and there is no effort to depict their triumph as such. In a sport traditionally dominated by the wealthy and white, “King Richard” revels in unapologetic Blackness — from its soundtrack’s blend of Motown and golden-era hip-hop, to real discussions on what it means to strive for success in a society against oneself. 

King Richard is nothing but love — of family, of sport, of self. As the credits roll, the audience can’t help but fill with determination and a belief that anything is possible. Love-all.

Contact Afton Okwu at [email protected].