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'King Richard' review: Will Smith is terrific as Venus and Serena Williams' father

From left: Demi Singleton, Will Smith and Saniyya

From left: Demi Singleton, Will Smith and Saniyya Sidney in "King Richard." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

PLOT The true story of Richard Williams and his two tennis prodigies, Venus and Serena Williams.

CAST Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton

RATED PG-13 (some adult talk and brief violence)

LENGTH 2:18

WHERE Area theaters and streaming on HBO Max

BOTTOM LINE Smith aces his performance as a homegrown tennis guru in this solid and satisfying biopic.

Early in "King Richard," featuring Will Smith as the self-made tennis impresario Richard Williams, a couple of white sports executives offer to handle the careers of his daughters, the budding pros Venus and Serena Williams. Promises are made, money is dangled. One of the suits says something about how much Richard has accomplished despite his "resources" — though what he really means is race.

Indeed, Richard did not have the resources, however you define them, to join the mostly WASP-y world of tennis. What he did have were the instincts of a natural-born coach, the stubbornness of a mule and a near-religious faith in his girls. As the Williams sisters grew up, during the 1990s and 2000s, Venus would become a No. 1 ranked player and four-time Olympic gold medalist, while Serena became known as the greatest female player in the sport. If anyone deserved to say "I told you so," it was Richard; in fact, he scrawled it on a sign and held it aloft when the sisters played each other at the 1999 Lipton Championships.

"King Richard" is the cinematic adaptation of that sign. Executive produced by Venus and Serena, it’s a biopic that casts their father as the hero of their lives and enlists one of Hollywood’s biggest stars to play him. (The polished direction is by Reinaldo Marcus Green; the screenplay is by Zach Baylin.) Smith is terrific as Richard, imbuing him with an irresistible, sometimes maddening combination of Christian humility, Barnum-style showmanship and foxy intelligence. We never doubt Smith here, just as we never doubt that Richard’s now-famous 78-page plan for tennis stardom will work.

His secret? Never settle. He trades one excellent coach for another, finally landing on the enthusiastic Floridian Rick Macci (an endearing Jon Bernthal). When Reebok offers Venus $3 million, she waits — and ultimately gets $12 million. But Richard also keeps his daughters grounded; tennis isn’t everything. He’s stunned to see wealthy white kids fuming over losses and cheating to win. He’s so worried about burnout that he cancels an important tournament and takes the family (there are five sisters in all) to Disney World.

There’s a lesser-known figure in this film who deserves credit: The girls’ mother, Oracene, played by an excellent Aunjanue Ellis. In this telling, she’s the one who picks up the slack, coaches Serena during a difficult period and keeps Richard in check. (They’ve since divorced.) When Oracene asks about Richard’s other, unmentioned children — there are many — we see another side to this father figure.

We don’t get to know Venus (Saniyya Sidney) or Serena (Demi Singleton) in any depth. Their personalities are basically interchangeable — two good-natured, confident girls with generous spirits. Given their many televised triumphs, the real Venus and Serena may not mind ceding the spotlight here. "King Richard" brims with gratitude for the man (and the woman) who made them.

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