Sometimes “Oscar bait” movies feel like artificial Hollywood creations that exist just to win awards for its lead. However, even though many films are clearly made with that purpose in mind, some also have enough heart and passion to become something more than another awards’ season movie. KING RICHARD, a new biopic starring Will Smith as the pushy and strict, yet motivational father of Venus and Serena Williams, is fortunately in the latter category. It not only serves as an interesting examination of the true story about two of the best tennis players in history, but it also excels as an inspirational sports movie with a truly heartwarming final act. Smith gives an amazing performance as well — one that is not afraid to be daring and takes risks while grounding itself in a truth about fatherhood that many will be able to see in father figures they know in their own lives.
KING RICHARD ends up being a stand-up-and-cheer level of sports movie that everyone can get onboard with, but the first twenty minutes do not reflect that. The film starts out with a lot of unnecessary exposition about Smith’s Richard and how he is pushing his two little girls to become the best tennis stars of their generation. At the beginning, Smith’s performance was not convincing: it seemed as though his accent was somewhat inconsistent, and the movie took a while to grab me. However, once KING RICHARD ramps up and becomes a fantastic and compelling sports story, the movie takes hold of the audience and never lets go. The reason the film excels so much from a dramatic level is the moral dilemma that Richard must face of trying to push his kids to superstardom. The narrative also looks at Richard with a nondiscriminatory lens; is Richard trying to push his kids for their own benefit or is he doing it to find fulfillment within himself?
Smith’s performance ended up winning me over — so much so that by the end of the movie he disappears into the character. His accent work is very strong throughout the movie despite having my doubts near the start, and his mannerisms are amazingly specific to the real life Richard Williams in a way that is uncanny. Despite this, perhaps my personal favorite performance in the movie is that of his wife, played by Aunjanue Ellis, who steals every scene that she appears in. She plays an incredible foil to Smith’s opinionated and egotistical father, and is not afraid to put him in his place if she feels like he is not doing what is in the best interest of her children. Ellis is riveting throughout, and while Smith will justifiably get much of the attention for this movie, I feel that his attention should not be given without the same attention doled out to Ellis.
The real highlight of KING RICHARD is the final act, which provides a fantastic sports match that will keep audience members on the edge of their seats. Sure, it’s a formulaic story that hits all the narrative beats everyone has seen a million times before, but director Reinaldo Marcus Green does such a great job of building the emotion and suspense that it never matters. I believe that clichés can work wonders if the execution delivers, and KING RICHARD is a shining example of this. Along with being a great story, the movie does the legend of Serena and Venus Williams justice without entirely giving the credit for their careers over to their father. The film highlights his perseverance that got the two girls into much of the tournaments and championships that jump-started their career, but the narrative is still well-balanced between him and other characters.
KING RICHARD is no masterpiece of cinema and it never attempts to reinvent the wheel, but it still excels at being a fascinating and uplifting watch. Smith will receive at the very least a nomination for his work here, and this recognition is long overdue and justified. He and many others put in the work to make this movie the accurate and compelling biopic it attempts to be, and the work paid off. The film takes some time to take off from the runway, but after it does the narrative never stops soaring until the credits roll. Viewers will gain far more of an interest in tennis and the Williams sisters after watching, which speaks to the great work on display in KING RICHARD.