Grade:  B+
Sports biopic, 2021
Rated PG-13

King Richard is a good movie that our family found entertaining. But we also found ourselves wondering how Oscar-worthy it was. The film has received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Song (“Be Alive,” by Beyoncé and Dixson).

Not your typical sports biopic, this Venus and Serena Williams story uniquely revolves around the father that shaped and micromanaged their careers.  And there’s no arguing with the results. His daughters became two of the greatest tennis players ever to hit the courts. Venus, who turned pro at age 14, was the first African American woman to rank No. 1 in the US Open era and notched seven Grand Slam singles titles over the course of her career. Younger (by one year) sister Serena won 23 Grand Slam singles titles—the most of any player in the Open era and second-most all-time. Together, they teamed to win 14 women’s doubles titles and three Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles.

So the Williams sisters’ story was certainly ripe for the telling.

With Hollywood being Hollywood, though, the screenplay is reductive. The curtain parts just enough to show the period between when Richard recognized the girls were ready for a professional coach and when Venus played her first match as a pro. Though both parents had a hand in coaching the girls, emphasized here is Richard’s coaching and the tension caused by his ironfisted parenting and management. As played by Will Smith, Richard is a character that’s admirable but not always likable. In fact, he can be annoying as hell. The more he pushes, you find yourself siding with the girls; the more he stubbornly ignores the very professionals he sought out, the more you want to shake him—almost as much as the agents, coaches and would-be sponsors who are so intent on getting a piece of the Williams’ action that they act like a bunch of overzealous Jerry Maguires (“Help me help you!”).

The Williams’ dynamic is a more realistic version of The Cosby Show. The family lives in Compton, Calif., where there are shootings and gang threats. But in the film, such dangers are on the periphery or comparatively minor. For the most part, viewers see happy daughters growing up in a happy household where the intense king-of-his-castle dispenses his “kids must be kids” philosophy with the same insistent ardor as his coaching. And this is a guy who takes his daughters out in the rain to hit balls that are heavier because of the water.

Smith’s performance is strong, but sometimes comes across as studied or affected. Smith, this year’s BAFTA winner, and Aunjanue Ellis received Oscar nominations for playing the parents, but our family thought that Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton were just as good as Venus and Serena, respectively—and maybe even more engaging because there was a freshness and naturalness to their performances. It’s also a breakthrough film for director Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose only previous full-length feature was Monsters and Men—a 2018 film about the aftermath of a police killing of a Black man and how it inspires one policeman and a high-school basketball star to act.

Racism is kept as much on the periphery of this film as the gang threats and violence, keeping the focus on sports and the stage-mom equivalent of a pushy parent who’s insistent that his offspring become famous and successful—partly, one suspects, to compensate for their own lives of expired dreams and ragged realities. As a result, King Richard will spark thought, if not debate, among parents and children over what’s best for youngsters and how much enforced practice is “enough”—whether we’re talking about playing a sport, mastering a musical instrument, or developing into a dancer or actor. Certainly, watching the Williams family might prompt some parents to look back and wonder what if. But it might also prompt families to reevaluate whether there’s enough fun in their lives, because this is clearly one happy family that’s full of love despite any problems caused by Richard’s personality and methods.

In the end, King Richard feels more on a par with sports films like Hoosiers, Creed, Moneyball, Miracle, or The Natural, none of which won Oscars. But maybe it will surprise. After all, Rocky and Million Dollar Baby did win an Oscar for Best Picture—though two out of 92 Best Picture winners are odds that would wrinkle even Rocky’s brow.

Entire family:  No (age 10 and older?)
Run time:  145 min. Color
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Dolby Atmos-True HD
Studio/Distributor:  Warner Bros.
Bonus features:  C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references

Language:  5/10—Mostly on the level of “bullshit” and “ass” and lesser swearwords, with one f-bomb, a middle finger, and two uses of the n-word

Sex:  1/10—A verbal threat of rape

Violence:  6/10—From a distance viewers witness a drive-by shooting that results in a death; a gang punches and kicks a man; a man bludgeons another with a tennis racket

Adult situations:  1/10—One reference to drug use

Takeaway:  The LA Times reported that Sidney had never played tennis prior to this film and had to learn not only to play like Venus, but to play right-handed when she herself was left-handed; maybe Sidney ought to have received an Oscar nomination as well, because she’s absolutely convincing