Venus, Serena, and their father: ‘King Richard’ biopic is an ace

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures
In “King Richard,” Will Smith (center) stars as Richard Williams. The patriarch is merciless in his mentorship of his daughters, declaring, “I’m in the champion-raising business.”

“King Richard,” starring Will Smith in his best performance yet, is an enormously entertaining movie about Richard Williams, the high-powered patriarch of tennis superstars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Perhaps “high-powered” doesn’t quite capture him. Obsessively controlling? Imperially stubborn? However he comes across in the movie – and he’s all of these things and more – you can’t argue with the results: He meticulously groomed his daughters practically from birth to become two of the greatest players in history. “I’m in the champion-raising business,” he declares early on.

No argument there.

The film opens with Richard’s voice-over: “When I grew up, tennis was not a game people played. We were too busy running from the Klan.” He occasionally alludes to his harrowing Louisiana boyhood, but his overriding focus is the respect he demands for his family, including three other daughters and his exasperated, waywardly supportive wife, Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis, whose richly layered performance fully matches Smith’s). 

Why We Wrote This

What does it take to get the talent of your children recognized? As the new biopic “King Richard” engagingly tells it, the superstar Williams sisters would not have taken tennis by storm without their father’s determination and vision.

Because the Williams sisters, winningly played in the film, are such fixtures in the superstar firmament, it’s easy to forget how unlikely their origin story is. Growing up in the gang-ridden Los Angeles suburb of Compton, they played, rain or shine, not on well-tended country club courts but in ramshackle local parks. 

Richard, who works as an after-hours security guard, is merciless in his mentorship – his motto is “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” – and yet the girls clearly adore him. It’s because he cares. There’s a marvelous moment near the beginning when Richard cautiously confronts a gang member who has been coming on to the eldest sister Tunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew) on the tennis court, and as a van load of his daughters looks on, is summarily beaten. What makes the scene so powerful is the sad, resigned look on their faces. They’ve seen this before. Their brief consolations on the drive home are the surest sign of their love.

As Richard makes the rounds looking for a top coach for the preteen Venus and Serena, he brushes off the vaguely condescending rejections. When he finally lands a biggie – Paul Cohen (a terrific Tony Goldwyn), who coaches Pete Sampras and John McEnroe – he insists on second-guessing him. Cohen agrees to coach just Venus, whose ascent from 1991 to 1994 is the film’s primary focus, because he won’t train both daughters for free. When Cohen is later dumped for Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, also terrific), Richard bullies him, too. 

Although the film, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, doesn’t make a big point of it, Richard’s mania for success is clearly racially motivated. He chastises the agents and managers who want to highlight Venus’ roots, and yet it’s obvious he enjoys the way she, in effect, is sticking it to the white establishment. 

As enjoyable as the film is, it does nevertheless skirt some of the more questionable aspects of Richard’s manipulations and airbrushes a few of this family man’s more unsavory aspects, such as his serial infidelities. Was he using his daughters as glorified props in his campaign to overthrow his past and seize respect? He’s an inveterate braggart who lectures his daughters to stay humble. Did they never bridle at his strictness? 

Perhaps because Venus and Serena are executive producers, these issues and contradictions are never really confronted in the film. We are also left with the largely unchallenged notion, per Richard, that hard work can make anything happen. I imagine that mantra is cold comfort to all those people of color in poor neighborhoods who lack the Williams sisters’ gifts. 

But perhaps it’s too much to ask of a Hollywood biopic that it be both crowd-pleasing and scrupulously probing. The fact remains that, however it came to pass, the Williams sisters’ saga is so improbably inspirational that watching their ascent, coupled with Smith’s crackerjack performance, had me grinning the entire time. It’s the most sheerly pleasurable movie I’ve seen so far this year.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “King Richard” is rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference, and brief drug references. The film is available in theaters and on HBO Max on Nov. 19. 

Editor's note: This review has been updated to correct which sister is being harassed on the tennis court early in the movie. It is Tunde.

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