‘King Richard’ serves up powerful story of family, faith

Rick's Reviews

Will Smith turns in an Oscar-worthy performance in “King Richard.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

It doesn’t sound logical but the real strength of a sports movie doesn’t come from how well it depicts the physicality of the sport. That element is necessary to entertain an audience but the heart and cinematic soul that elevates a film in the genre is how well the human elements are embraced.

“Rocky” would have been a good movie because of the boxing scenes but the film’s strength came from looking at what makes the heart of a champion. That’s the key to true sports movie success.

That element has not been as fully embraced in a film since “Rocky” until “King Richard.” The story of the almost fairytale rise of the Williams sisters from the dangerous streets of Compton to center court at Wimbledon handles the tennis moments with great skill. But, it is the emphasis on family, faith and ferocious parenting that makes “King Richard” a truly inspiring champion.

Richard Williams (Will Smith) predicted two years before the birth of his daughters – Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) –that they would be stars. He even created a lengthy plan on how they would accomplish that goal. This seems like a fool’s errand as his young tennis-playing daughters didn’t have access to the facilities, equipment and training needed to produce superstars.

There is also the monumental fact that they are black and from Compton. Neither had ever been represented in the very closed tennis world.

Their background automatically made the tennis world dismiss any possibilities they might have of being winners in the sport. But this is a film that looks at the inspirational journey of a family whose unwavering resolve and unconditional belief ultimately delivers two of the world’s greatest sports legends.

A traditional sports film would have focused on the Williams sisters. But, while the script by Zack Baylin and direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green make them important players in this tale, the focus is Richard Williams. He is a complicated character who at times defends his daughters with unrelenting force and at other times proves self-destructive in his stubbornness.

The complexity of the character is handled with Oscar-worthy ability by Smith. “King Richard” is not the first time Smith has played a father on the big screen as he earned an Academy Award nomination for playing a father struggling to help himself and his son in “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Smith again shows the kind of great emotional depth needed to play a parent who is more than just the person who provides rides to practice or pays the bills. Williams is played as a man consumed by a need to make his daughters the best people they can be while dealing with his own emotional baggage weighed down by decades of racism.

One of the major points of “King Richard” is the strength that comes when everyone works together. Smith certainly takes center stage as Richard but the film would have only been half as good had the supporting players not been as strong.

Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the girls’ mom, Oracene “Brandy” Williams, could get overshadowed by Smith and that would be criminal. Her character provides the emotional glue for the film and while she doesn’t have as many big scenes as Smith, delivers with every opportunity she gets.

And both Sidney and Singleton show acting abilities far beyond their years. Not only do they play the Williams sisters as typical teenage girls but they make their time on the court resonate strongly enough that the athleticism of the characters shines through.

Toss in more strong acting support for Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal and “King Richard” has a team of acting all-stars.

Sports movies come and go. The only ones that remain vivid parts of our artistic memory are those who see the sport as only a platform for telling more important stories.

The Williams sisters became an inspiration to young people – especially those who are a minority – because of the way they faced an impossible world. “King Richard” is inspirational in the way it shows that when the core of a family is solid, there is nothing that is impossible.

“King Richard” is playing in theaters and will be available starting that day on the streaming service of HBO Max.

Movie review

“King Richard”

3 ½ stars

Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bertnal, Saniyya Sidney.

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Rated: PG-13 for some violence, strong language, drug reference, sexual reference

Running time: 146 minutes.

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