The sports biopic is something American audiences should be acutely familiar with. For decades we have been enamored with larger than life athletes, Cinderella stories, underdogs, and unlikely heroes. From Wahlberg’s Invincible to Damon’s Invictus. From The Blind Side and Remember the Titans to Moneyball and 42, sports biopics litter the timeline. We all love the story of rising from the dust to claim greatness. People like to rag on Hallmark Christmas movies because of their formula, but the honest truth is, somehow they work. The sports biopic is similar. They are built on a formula of surprise success earned by dedicated individuals, often from upbringings that test them at every turn. You could almost say that King Richard fits into this mold perfectly. Almost.
Venus and Serena Williams have long been household names. For twenty years they absolutely dominated tennis, taking in a staggering 14 women’s Grand Slam Doubles titles, a combined 122 singles titles, a combined 30 Grand Slam Singles titles, and 5 Olympic gold medals. If you were alive in the 2000s, you knew the names Venus and Serena. But how many people were aware of where they came from? Ask nearly anyone who the greatest tennis players to have ever played the game are, and ninety-nine times out of one hundred you will hear their names. Ask those same people to tell their story before they stood defiantly in the spotlight? King Richard seeks to fill this knowledge gap by focusing on the girls’ father, Richard Williams.
It’s an interesting take, for sure. As many black folks, like myself, will tell you, a lot of these biopics focused on black athletes can come across with a tinge of the white savior complex. Even more often, the early years of athletes who grew up in places like the Williams sisters are glossed over, or ignored entirely. Rather than using this approach, King Richard leans into the story of a black father, doing everything he could to make sure his daughters got a fair shake. And without pulling punches.
The Williams family grew up in Compton until Venus and Serena were ten and nine, respectively, two of five girls, sleeping in the same bedroom of a little bungalow. King Richard is focused on telling the story of their father, played brilliantly by Will Smith, and his tireless efforts to help his daughters achieve greatness. Where other films focus solely on the athletes, or supplement their story with the involvement of coaches and parents, King Richard, largely on behalf of the truth of the story, places Richard Williams front and center, making the Williams sisters almost more supporting characters. There is no doubt that ’90s Compton was a rough place, and that is visible in the portion of the movie located there. Several times the sisters and Richard are accosted by local gang members, with Richard even being beaten down by them. But through this illustration of disadvantage and tribulations we’re shown a man that simply will not be swayed from his plan. And Richard Williams had a Plan. A Plan that was more than seventy pages long, as he references in the film.
Throughout the movie, you see Richard sticking his neck out, pushing his way into conversations, and even interrupting professionals at practice, to get his daughters in front of them. His confidence in his girls is unwavering. At times this approach seems doomed to fail, and often it does, but eventually Richard pushes through. It’s astonishing. Obviously it’s hard to distinguish reality from fiction, as so many biopics will brush against a more palatable plot than what reality has to offer. But in the closing moments of the film, as you get to see footage of the real Richard and the real Rick Macci, my skepticism was immediately washed away.
There is a story here that could be told about über-talented girls fighting their way up the ranks, but it’s not. And it’s not for lack of stellar performances from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton. Aunjanue Ellis is perfectly cast as Oracene Williams (the girls’ mother). Even Jon Bernthal crushes as Rick Macci, sporting an accent that often does him no favors. All of these performances are stellar, but what stands out is Will Smith. Richard Williams was a determined man, planning out his children’s futures, letting them focus on school rather than competition. It’s simultaneously inspiring and frustrating and Will’s performance absolutely nails the nuance between those two things.
We all know how sports biopics build and come to the conclusion with our protagonist standing triumphant against all odds. What King Richard posits, gambles on, is that we know who the Williams sisters are. By doing so, it forgoes the trappings of the bloated sports biopic formula. Instead, it is a surprisingly intimate story about the father of two of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. We see a man struggling to raise his daughters in a white world and a largely white sport. We see love and fear and worry and anger in the front row. Are there moments of action and the sisters showing their prowess? Yes. Does it play into our knowledge of what’s to come for their careers? Of course. But the real gem tucked into the chest pocket of this film is its willingness to let you see what the world around the Williams family looked like. How their father was a force to be reckoned with. And how his drive led to them becoming universally known.
King Richard is excellent. A refreshing take on the sport biopic formula that deserves recognition. A film chock-full of talent and overflowing with character and care. Imagine having a plan for your daughters that would make them the best in the world, and then being right. What a journey to ride along for. | Caleb Sawyer