Will Smith gleams in ‘King Richard’, a winning, aspirational sports-based drama that champions equality and merit over favouritism

Let me explain: Will Smith as tennis dad Richard Williams in ‘King Richard’.

KING RICHARD ***1/2 (144 minutes) M
Less a sports movie than a barbed drama about the pros and pitfalls of over-parenting, King Richard serves up a captivating, colourful, if leisurely paced opus about the formative teen years of tennis titans Serena and Venus Williams as seen from the perspective of their loving, supportive, deeply imperfect father Richard.

Though Richard is flawed, it’s hard to find fault in the prime lead performance by Will Smith, who presents a sterling study of a man so set in his belief that Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) will be all-conquering future champions that his defiant fortitude can foment into sheer pig-headedness.

Richard does come close to going off the rails. Early on he risks all to confront the gang thugs in his African-American neighbourhood of Compton. As the girls become noticed his negotiating tactics with potential sponsors is a tad brusque.

Fortunately for Richard and his daughters – all five of them – his excesses are countered by the girls’ equally head-strong mother Oracene (a terrific turn by Aunjanue Ellis); she has the difficult job of injecting Richard’s enthusiasm with common sense.

Given how we all know where the story is going, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (working from a screenplay by Zach Baylin) takes his time with the tale, detailing their training regimens and Richard’s admirably dogged persistence in getting them coached by the right people for the right price.

Deeply embedded in the finely honed drama is a host of emphatic, positive messaging; the importance of supportive parents underscores the story though the overriding point is the recognition of merit above all.

That’s the chief principle that fuels Richard’s unwavering enterprise to see his daughters succeed. As an inspirational ode that’s the film’s primary takeaway. Richard’s passion isn’t just tennis, it’s equality. He doesn’t seek special favour for his daughters because they’re black and come from a poor part of town; he wants them to be given their fair share of opportunity to show what they can do.

As with Smith’s excellent 2006 drama The Pursuit of Happyness, most of the white people in power are largely portrayed as adhering to this value.

In particular, coach Rick Macci shines as a supporting character. As eager as Richard to develop the girls’ tennis skills, the role is blessed by a stellar performance from the ridiculously versatile Jon Bernthal, unrecognizable as Brad from 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Expect to see the cast of this film all over the place come Oscar time.

As has long been the case, the measure of any good sports-based movie has had little to do with whether you are actually into the sport.

To wit, Smith starred in the 2000 Robert Redford film The Legend of Bagger Vance, a very good, often beautiful movie even though it was set in the world of golf, the world’s most boring sport (next to cricket, that is).

Fortunately tennis has a tad more movement and spectacle, as featured here in an exciting final reel.

Still, whether you’re a tennis fan or think it’s nothing more than glorified ping pong, King Richard is actually at its least interesting when it is on the court.

In the tradition of all good movie dramas set in the sports realm, King Richard uses sport to reflect, examine and amplify deeper truths that apply universally, not just to fans.