King Richard (2021)

Reinaldo Marcus Green | 2hr 24min

Though King Richard is a sports film, sports players are not our focus. Instead, director Reinaldo Marcus Green crafts a character study of mentorship – the kind that doesn’t rebuke or harshly punish students when they fail, but rather nurtures them holistically into better people, and not just betters players. High expectations are set, but the relationship is a two-way street. While other aspiring tennis players are berated by overbearing parents and burn out from the stress, teenagers Venus and Serena Williams find the opposite problem. Their father, Richard, fully believes that they will become the best in the sport one day, but in the meantime, patience, family, and education will be top priorities.

There is no hypocrisy to his lessons either, as it is equally when they are not looking that he continues to work tirelessly for them. While the days are spent on their training, he works nights as a security guard to support them beyond mere verbal guidance, and is even willing to put his neck on the line in confronting a group of thugs lurking outside the local tennis courts. Not once in King Richard do we ever doubt that he has anything but his daughters’ best interests at hearts, but the frustrating patience with which he approaches their professional progress drives a tension in the family drama which is not easily resolved. If Venus is growing irritated with the pace at which he is pushing her, Serena is even more exasperated, being the one to live in the shadow of her older sister. But even when tempers are raised, there remains an air of cool collectedness to Will Smith’s performance, giving Richard all the confidence of a man who acts as if he has seen decades into the future.

Or maybe it is just his complete faith in the 85-page plan he wrote in his daughters’ infancy, plotting out their rises to success in careful detail. Though some adjustments are made along the way, his strong principles of humility and patience are rigidly maintained, as is his own detailed understanding of the sport. Most significantly, after he identifies a toxic atmosphere within the junior tournaments, he pulls both of them out and disallows them from competing in matches until they turn professional, aggravating both them and their befuddled coaches.

Time passes and the girls’ talents grow, and Green proves himself to be a particularly good editor in the sharpness with which he moves through it all. A jump forward three years in time lands a graphic match cut precisely on the hit of a tennis ball mid-serve, and these sound effects similarly punctuate transitions between other scenes as well. Montages and slow-motion sequences continue to move through climactic matches with superb tension, though among it all Richard remains a grounding force, as a source of conviction that the future remains bright even at his daughters’ lowest moments. Just as he is patient with them, so too is Green patient with him, peeling back the layers of this kind yet stubborn character whose unconventional choices cannot be fought against, but merely trusted with all the faith one would put in a sturdy, dependable father figure.

King Richard is currently playing in theatres.

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