One of the most common types of films these days is the biopic. Studios are always putting out films based on real life and typically have the films focus on one particular character. Over time, biopics have become very formulaic and now, audiences are wanting more from their biopics than what they’ve already seen a hundred times. However, it is possible to avoid the genre’s most cliche elements. “King Richard,” the latest release from Warner Bros., does just that, making for a crowd-pleasing biopic that is tough to ignore.
“King Richard” is a biopic about the life of Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. The film focuses on Richard (Will Smith) as he raises a young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) and sets them on the path toward becoming tennis stars. Richard works obsessively to help the girls complete the difficult journey from underprivileged kids from Compton to famous athletes. Richard’s intense methods don’t go unnoticed, as he faces pushback from his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), several coaches and the media. The film details the challenges and obstacles that Richard tirelessly faced and the sacrifices he made for his family.
“King Richard” does an excellent job avoiding the over-worn tropes of the biopic. For starters, the film only tells a specific story from Richard’s life, rather than the rote birth-fame-death structure that can often be seen in many other biopics. This structure may be expected from a story about Richard as opposed to his more famous daughters, but it still serves to make the film feel fresh and focused on the specific narrative it is trying to tell. The film does not seem to be trying to give the viewer the Wikipedia page on Richard Williams, but instead uses his life as the background for conveying what the filmmakers wanted to show. The story and themes take priority over the history and the movie is better for it.
Another way that “King Richard” succeeds as a biopic is through Will Smith’s excellent lead acting. Smith gives an incredible performance as he perfectly straddles the line between a character and a real person. This delicate balancing act is often a failure of other biopics. Smith is doing a lot to emulate Richard’s uniqueness, but it never feels so overboard that his attempts to portray the real person distract from his performance as a character in a movie. Smith’s performance alone makes the film worth seeing, even if you are uninterested in the subject matter. Many Oscar pundits are putting Smith as their current frontrunner for the Best Actor award and it is difficult for anyone to be upset with him should he emerge as the winner.
Unfortunately, there are a few points where “King Richard” is a bit too ambitious. First of all, the movie is simply too long. A film’s length is never inherently a problem, but in this particular case its two and a half hour runtime does not do it any favors. There are quite a few points where the film really drags and takes too long reaching the points the viewer especially wants to see. What’s worse is that the last section of the movie is the most compelling, so if the first part of the movie had not worn out viewers so much, the last part would be even more effective. In general, there are a few instances where “King Richard” reaches for a grand scope when, in actuality, it is at its best when focused on the smaller, more intimate family moments.
Biopics hit theaters all the time and it is easy for them to be unoriginal and uninspiring. “King Richard” avoids the common biopic pitfalls with an excellent lead performance and some deliberate choices to focus on specific parts of Richard’s life that make this particular film effective. The film, despite its poor opening box office, is irresistible enough to be sure to make its presence known come March at the Oscars. Audience members should be sure not to let this one pass them by.
“King Richard” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
By Ben Lindner