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Will Smith as Richard Williams sits by a tennis court watching his daughter play Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

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Why King Richard deserves to win Best Picture

They rarely make star vehicles, or sports dramas, like this any more

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Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

The 2022 Oscars ceremony is coming up on March 27, and 10 new movies are up for the Best Picture title: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and any of them might end up winning big. In the leadup to the Oscars, we’re making a case for why each of them might deserve to take the big prize.


King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, and produced by and starring Will Smith.


This biographical sports drama follows Richard Williams (Will Smith), coach and father to tennis superstars Venus and Serena, as he steers the young girls toward their professional debuts in the early ’90s. Single-minded and eccentric, Richard battles to overcome the many hurdles in their way: their lack of resources, the snobbery and racism of a blinkered tennis establishment, the dangers of the streets of Compton where they live, and his own fears and domineering impulses. Spoilers: his vision is realized, and they become two of the greatest tennis players of all time.


King Richard is an old-school star vehicle, and it’s primarily been set up for success in the Best Actor category (where Smith is the clear frontrunner) over Best Picture. Nothing is permitted to eclipse him; neither the relatively young director nor any of the other cast members can challenge Smith for clout, and the studio has worked hard to support him with a display of classic, unshowy craftsmanship. The true-life story is inspirational, and the role depends on Smith’s enormous personal charisma while also requiring him to transform his speech and bearing into those of another famous figure. In other words, it’s textbook Oscar-bait.


King Richard feels like a throwback — in a good way. It recalls a time, not so long ago, when glossy, rousing, dependable sports movies and biopics were part of Hollywood’s stock in trade, and there’s something intensely comforting about that. There’s also plenty to admire. The cinematographer is the great Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler); perhaps no-one knows better how to shoot the streets of suburban Los Angeles. Aunjanue Ellis is a crucial counterweight to Smith as Richard’s wife Brandy, and Jon Bernthal does a lovely turn as the enthusiastic coach Rick Macci. Smith does well not to let impersonation smother his naturalness as a performer, and neither his performance nor the fine script gloss over all of Richard’s more problematic quirks. It’s a fairly nuanced portrait of a complicated man.


The catch is Richard Williams himself, and the Williams family’s involvement in the film. Richard Williams was widely caricatured, dismissed, and misunderstood, and there was an inherent racist bias in the way the media portrayed him. It’s understandable that his daughters would want to correct that. But the resulting movie fundamentally turns the story of two hugely influential and successful women into a story about the man who obsessively controlled every detail of their early lives, and was not shy about taking the credit for their achievements. King Richard can’t really dig into the troubling contradictions and implications of that story without giving up its central thesis: He was right, and everyone else was wrong. So it doesn’t.


Saniyya Sidney Venus Williams courtside at her first major professional match Photo: Warner Bros.

Sports scenes can be exceptionally difficult to film convincingly. Tennis moves so quickly and is so spatially complex that it must be one of the hardest sports to capture, although its inherent psychological drama is a plus. Green stages his matches with great confidence, and the film’s climax — in which a 14-year-old Venus faces top international contender Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in her first professional tournament — is both brilliantly realized and a bold dramatic choice.


King Richard is available to stream on HBO Max. For the other nominees, check out our streaming guide to every 2022 Oscar nominee.

The rest of the series:

Why Don’t Look Up deserves to win Best Picture
Why The Power of the Dog deserves to win Best Picture
Why West Side Story deserves to win Best Picture
Why Belfast deserves to win Best Picture
Why Nightmare Alley deserves to win Best Picture
Why Dune deserves to win Best Picture
Why Licorice Pizza deserves to win Best Picture
Why CODA deserves to win Best Picture
Why Drive My Car deserves to win Best Picture