Review: King Richard | AFI FEST 2021

Score:  A-

Director:  Reinaldo Marcus Green

Cast:  Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton

Running Time:  138 Minutes

Rated:  PG-13

“We gotta stick to the plan.”

Richard Williams had a plan. His two daughters, Venus and Serena, were going to take the tennis world by storm. The 78-page outline was as good as fact; the rest of the world just needed to buy in.

Few would argue the notion that Williams was polarizing. Even fewer that he was controversial. But the man had a dream, and sheer determination and commitment fueled his two daughters out of Compton, California, into the international spotlight.

Will Smith is fantastic as Williams, the father of tennis’ two greatest superstars. Taking his daughters to abandoned tennis courts near their home, he tirelessly worked them to the best of his knowledge and ability. A neighbor disapproved, calling CPS to investigate. They didn’t understand the plan. In reality, few did, even with the provided paper materials.

King Richard is Williams’ story. His biopic. His time to take center court and show how a man with little knowledge of a sport used persistence and conviction to overcome the odds and offer the world two Michael Jordan’s of tennis.

Smith’s performance might be the best of his career. His approach is near flawless as he embodies a man attempting to do the unthinkable. His passion and love for his family are a constant stressing point throughout the film. At times, both lead to him struggling between his roles as a stern coach and a loving father. But every practice ended with a laugh, every night with a kiss. He prioritized the girls’ education and innocence; sports and adulthood could always wait.

Aunjanue Ellis more than holds her own as Brandy Williams, Richard’s wife, who helped carry out the plan. Her depiction is impeccable as she provides a stable, maternal presence in the life of her five young girls. A heated conversation in the kitchen after the family moves to Florida for better coaching is heart-wrenching. Her delivery is precise, her expressions intense, she demands your attention, reminding everyone that she is equally responsible for her daughters’ future success.

It is moments like those that keep the film grounded. Never a fluff piece, King Richard is articulate in its purpose without preaching. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton learned tennis for their roles as Venus and Serena, respectively. Impressive, to say the least, their performances allow the film to weave back and forth between a sports drama and a biopic. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has fun with the flow of genres, melding them together to tell an inspirational story of love, grit, and determination.

Though the two girls shine from start to finish, playing the tennis juggernauts over several years, Green never forgets whose story this is. After pulling his daughter from Juniors, refusing to sacrifice her childhood for an early paycheck, the attention remains on the decision-maker, not on Venus’ elite training. Not until he begins to see his daughter as an adult, able to make her own decisions, do we begin to see a tonal shift in the narrative.

After a meeting with Nike where she could become the highest-paid rookie on the pro circuit, Venus takes the court against the world’s top player. Though the action on center court plays out like a classic sports showdown, Green never loses sight of his star. Richard Williams, pacing in the wing, is our central focus. The respect paid to the man who originated the 78-page plan is undeniable. King Richard is a film he’d be proud of.

*This film is available in theaters and streaming on HBOMax.


About Stephen Davis

Stephen Davis
I owe this hobby/career to the one and only Stephanie Peterman who, while interning at Fox, told me that I had too many opinions and irrelevant information to keep it all bottled up inside. I survived my first rated R film, Alive, at the ripe age of 8, it took me months to grasp the fact that Julia Roberts actually died at the end of Steel Magnolias, and I might be the only person alive who actually enjoyed Sorority Row…for its comedic value of course. While my friends can drink you under the table, I can outwatch you when it comes iconic, yet horrid 80s films like Adventures in Babysitting and Troop Beverly Hills. I have no shame when it comes to what I like, and if you have a problem with that, then we’ll settle it on the racquetball court. I see too many movies to actually win any film trivia contest, so don’t waste your first pick on me. My friends rent movies from my bookcase shelves, and one day I do plan to start charging. I long to live in LA, where my movie obsession will actually help me fit in, but for now I am content with my home in Austin. I prefer indies to blockbusters, Longhorns to Sooners and Halloween to Friday the 13th. I miss the classics, as well as John Ritter, and I hope to one day sit down and interview the amazing Kate Winslet.