From the outside, you may think you know what you're about to get from King Richard. The assumption may be that this is merely the Hollywoodisation of a feelgood story that has already been much rehearsed, whether in documentary form (2012's Venus and Serena, 2016's Serena, 2018's Being Serena) or the Sunday supplements in the run-up to every Grand Slam event over the past two decades: how the Williams sisters were guided by their father Richard from lowly beginnings on the concrete public courts of Compton to eventually become two of the greatest athletes of all time. This latest retelling, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a script by Zach Baylin, reshapes that achievement into a more movie-ish thing - a shambling dreamer's crazy hustle. This Richard Williams (Will Smith) is operating from a 78-page masterplan, written before either girl was born so as to net his at-that-point theoretical offspring at least $50,000 for four days' work at a WTA tournament. It could only sound crazier if hadn't succeeded several times over.
If you've ever spotted the real-life RW on the sidelines at Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow, you'll know that he can present as a genial but eccentric fellow. Baylin makes a reasonable case for him being a product of his experiences - his natural distrust of white folks attributed to being chased by the Klan as a boy - while the casting prevents him from ever seeming weird, as might have been the case with another actor in the role. Smith's Richard is from first to last a loving father, tired from all his hustling (and night shifts as a security guard) but clear-eyed enough to see promise where others weren't prepared to look; a man willing to insert himself as a bulwark between his girls and the gang life, as represented by the sweet-talking hoodlums scattered around Compton's baselines. As a result, he saw a 100,000-to-1 gamble - "finding two Mozarts in the same family", as one sceptical onlooker puts it - pay off quite spectacularly. King Richard, which covers a relatively small timespan and concludes before Venus wins her first professional tournament, lets us watch the groundwork and that initial bet being placed; along the way, it even makes sense of Richard's propensity for wearing tennis shorts wherever he went. In his mind, he was dressing for business.
Making his studio debut after 2018's promising Monsters and Men, Green is fated to follow this story where it was meant to go, though that may not necessarily be a fault in this instance. (It is a good story, after all.) Somewhere in King Richard, there's a rather more radical and accusatory film on race relations, addressing the way the Williamses collectively challenged and shook up what was still, even at the back end of the 20th century, a largely privileged, country-club pursuit. The film we have can't lean too hard in that direction; its target audience would be your standard multiplex crowd. Yet glimpses of this narrative keep coming into view, like a ball that's been hoiked across from an adjacent court. Richard struggles to hold his temper when a nosy neighbour sends the police round to the family home to check on the welfare of his girls; he loses it completely when a (white) agent insists on referring to Venus and Serena's progress as "incredible". (He means "beyond the scope of human comprehension"; Richard's ire substitutes "Caucasian" for "human".) Their context may have been altered forever by Smith's regrettable Oscar-night lapse, but these scenes benefit from the star's ability to draw a firm line in the sand and then withdraw from it with a smile - or a smile and a fart, in the second example.
Elsewhere, the story may be preordained, but Green's choices keep scenes and stretches far livelier than anticipated. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are persuasive as the sisters, adroitly mirroring the young Venus and Serena's giggly personalities; they also give a fair approximation of the pair's on-court personas. Jon Bernthal, as the girls' coach Rick Macci, arrives at the exact point a 140-minute movie needs a jolt of rude energy, and proceeds to do just that, calling Richard out on his mulish inflexibility, his refusal to deviate from the detail of that initial 78-page document. History would demonstrate that Richard Williams was right to stand firm, but the film isn't afraid to question this King's wisdom along the way, as a family member would. Aunjanue Ellis's rocksolid portrayal of the girls' mum Oracene has something to do with that, as does Smith's performance, with its intriguingly steely flickers of egotism and control. Baylin mitigates against those, by reasoning that Richard had much to fear from any loss of control: more than anyone around him, he sensed the risk involved in letting his daughters go into a world that is often indifferent to the fate of young Black women. Green folds it all into a thoroughly professional entertainment, one that gets the tennis right, is never mawkish, and is only rarely as obvious as it could have been. There's a lot of love and care in these frames, and it extends beyond the expected admiration for everything its subjects achieved. Nevertheless, as Venus and Serena wind down their playing careers, King Richard can stand alongside the cluttered trophy rooms in million-dollar mansions as its own polished memento of where this family came from and what they overcame.
King Richard is available on DVD through Warner Bros., and available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.