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King Richard’s Stellar Ensemble Elevates this Sports Biopic

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King Richard screening provided by Universal

King Richard is a moving and even-handed biopic about a family that stopped at nothing to achieve greatness.”

Tennis is inherently cinematic. It is emotionally and mentally gruelling, pitting incredible athletes against each other for hours, ending with a euphoric outpouring of relief. It is similar to boxing in that sense and yet, why has film never explored the sport as deeply? Where is the Raging Bull (1980) or Rocky (1976) of tennis? We have the occasional decent tennis movie like Wimbledon (2004) or Battle of the Sexes (2017), but those films have always made the sport secondary to the drama.

What immediately stood out in King Richard (2021), a moving biopic about the Williams family, is just how much of the sport we see. From this element alone, the film enters rarefied air in the genre of sports biopics. Key scenes of high drama are centred around the sport itself that will have audiences gripping their seats.

The film follows the journey of a young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) on their path to tennis royalty, and the parents who stopped at nothing to have them achieve it, Richard (Will Smith) and Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). Sport fans and biopic fans will find a lot to love here.

As the title suggests, the film centres a lot of its narrative around Richard, a notoriously difficult figure that was always seen as overbearing and possessive of his family, which the film deftly addresses throughout while also capturing the world the family was coming from and why Richard and Oracene were so driven to have their children achieve great things. These are complicated issues that the film is communicating, but does so with only passing judgement, allowing the audience to decide for themselves.

The ensemble in King Richard is spectacular and what elevates the film, especially the performances of Aunjanue Ellis as the Williams matriarch Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams, the film’s true protagonist. Ellis elevates the material in every moment she inhabits, displaying a similar grit and persistence to Richard that balances the film in crucial stages. Possibly the best scene of the film takes place between Brandy and Richard in their new Florida kitchen that recontextualizes what we’ve seen up until this point, as well as breathing new life into a film that was veering dangerously close to biopic staleness that dooms so many in the genre. 

Surprisingly, what didn’t hit for me in the film was Will Smith’s performance. With a biopic like this, it is clear the driving force in the production of King Richard wouldn’t have occurred without a focused awards push for Smith, one of the most celebrated performers of the 21st century, but lacks the hardware. Smith adopts many characteristics of Richard Williams for this biopic which are serviceable, but is not enough to dim the star persona he has cultivated over decades. 

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Will Smith with Demi Singleton & Saniyya Sidney in King Richard

What the film does recognise, however, is Smith’s extraordinary ability to perform alongside young actors. He is able to lift these newcomers in scenes where the film thrives, scenes that could easily be dominated by his presence and capsize the film. There is a smaller and perhaps better version of this movie with a central figure like Delroy Lindo in the role, but most likely wouldn’t have made its way into the public consciousness or Oscar discussions.

Another standout element of the film is the cinematography, with Robert Elswit elevating the film and planting its feet firmly in its period setting — especially the tennis sequences which are perhaps the best ever put to film. The filmmaking is of a high quality throughout and if you can see this on the big screen, you will not be disappointed.

King Richard is a moving and even-handed biopic about a family that stopped at nothing to achieve greatness. The film is much greater than its central figure, with a stellar ensemble that shines brightest in the quiet moments. 

King Richard opens nationally from the 13th of January 2022.

Contributors

Darcy Read

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