There wasn’t an open seat to be found at the 30th annual Philadelphia Film Festival’s Centerpiece screening of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s upcoming Oscar-destined biopic, King Richard. The city flocked in masses to support their native son, leading star Will Smith, in his role as Richard Williams, the strict and demanding father of sibling tennis legends Venus and Serena. While it’s admittedly odd to be given a film centered on the patriarch of this famed family before the star athletes themselves, Smith delivers a career-best performance that masks this fleeting thought from the moment he appears on screen.
Richard (Smith) and Brandi Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) have shown their five daughters that family is everything by raising them to be academic and athletic standouts despite growing up on the mean streets of Compton in the early 90s. These close-knit sisters are pushed extremely hard by their father, sometimes to point of concern by not only their neighbors, but their mother as well. Yet, through it all, Richard only piles on these strong young women what their able to bear, determined to help his budding tennis stars, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), earn the respect and adoration of a world that never believed in him.
Reinaldo Marcus Green captures a fantastic blend of commercial appeal and crisp filmmaking, a combination that will go a long way in King Richard’s quest for Best Picture. It all begins and ends with Will Smith’s dynamic turn, one that spans the entire emotional universe with true sincerity. It’s no secret that tennis has long been a sport for the privileged and wealthy, which is a sadly cryptic way of saying it’s a sport mostly dominated by Caucasian men and women. African American trailblazers such as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe helped pave the way for Venus and Serena’s ascension into stardom decades earlier, yet it’s impossible to ignore the cultural impact made by these young women of color. This racial underdog element serves as an emotional lifeline for the film and provides a handful of moments for Will Smith to shine brilliantly. And while Smith has no trouble delivering the sentimental goods, he’s equally as effective in his lighter and more charismatic scenes. Richard Williams proves to be an infectious and alluring character despite his many flaws. Smith miraculously manifests this human complexity onscreen in a superbly well-acted performance that could very well land him his first Oscar statue. Despite being a “safe” and restrained endeavor by failing to ever push the envelope artistically, King Richard stands as an entertaining and enjoyable examination of a family’s unbelievable quest to change the world of sports.