MIKE AT THE MOVIES: King Richard One of the Best Films of the Year


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In Hollywood, the holiday season begins sometime in early fall and stretches to the end of the year. Buried in the glitz of all the big budget “gifts”– the gaudy, effects-laden comedy-adventures (Ghostbusters: Afterlife), the build-back-bigger remakes and reboots (West Side Story, The Matrix Resurrection), the annual Disney-animated musical (Encanto) – will be the serious Oscar contenders, those films with awards aspirations baked into their DNA.

One that has been trumpeted since summer has finally arrived in theaters and on HBO Max: the sports bio-pic King Richard (PG-13), which gives Will Smith, one of the most versatile movie stars working, the kind of meaty role of which the Best Actor nominations are made. And Smith delivers his best performance since Ali, another sports bio-pic about another colorful, larger-than-life personality, which snagged him his first Academy Award nomination 20 years ago.

The “King Richard” of the title is Richard Williams, the eccentric, authoritarian father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. These sisters have dominated the sport the past three decades, racking up a record number of major championships individually and collectively. They’ve been on top so long, in fact, casual fans of tennis take them for granted. But the story of how they crashed into the privileged world of green courts and white tennis togs, two black girls straight out of Compton, is one tailor-made for the movies. I’m surprised it took so long to make it to the screen.

Williams had a 78-page plan to get his five daughters off the mean streets of Los Angeles and into the better world offered by the American Dream, one that he glimpsed daily from the delivery truck he drove. He determined early on that sports would be his girls’ salvation, and tennis was the most viable sport to realize his goals. 

All of his daughters were hauled to the crappy public courts in Compton, where he would coach them and work them rigorously, much to the catcalling of the local gangbangers who used the park as their hangout. But only Venus and Serena seemed to have the foot speed, the hand-eye coordination, and the tenacity to excel, and they became the two that he doted on, leaving the other three to the loving care of his wife Brandi (wonderfully played by Aunjanue Ellis, who could snag a supporting nomination for her work here).

Venus and Serena are played by young actresses Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively, and they are both convincing on the court and off, whether holding a tennis racket or a textbook – because excelling in the classroom was also part of Richard’s plan. When he thinks his daughters are ready to make the jump to the big-time, he goes in search of an established coach with connections.

Venus’s prowess on the court attracts the attention of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) first, a local coach of several promising players on the junior circuit in Southern California; and then Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who operates his own tennis academy in Florida and sees the same sort of potential in Venus that he saw in Jennifer Capriati, the 16-year-old phenom and Olympic champion who set the tennis world on fire in her pro debut in 1992. 

He wants Venus to come train in Florida, but Richard is adamant that Serena be included in any contract for services and representation. He insists that she is even better than her older sister (“The next Michael Jordan of tennis,” he proclaims), and when Macci finally agrees, Richard adds himself and the rest of his family into the deal – as well as a recreational vehicle to transport his family across the country.

Screenwriter Zach Baylin and young director Reinaldo Marcus Green do a terrific job fleshing out this unlikely underdog sports story with a compelling family drama, while avoiding the cliches endemic to the genre. The world of the junior tennis circuit – the exclusive clubs and privileged brats who populate that scene – makes for stark contrast to the violent streets the Williams family had to negotiate every day. By the time Venus finds herself pitted against the #1 woman player in the world, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, in a “friendly” exhibition that turns fiercely competitive, King Richard has established itself as one of the best films of the year.

See it in a theater or stream it at home – your choice – but this is one movie you should see that will be a serious contender this upcoming awards season.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for The Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.