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Will Smith just stole the Telluride Film Festival. And he could bring Beyoncé to the Oscars

Will Smith in tennis gear walks with a group of women and girls at a tennis complex
Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Danielle Lawson in “King Richard,” which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.
(Chiabella James / Warner Bros.)

The Telluride Film Festival world premiere of the crowd-pleasing “King Richard,” a drama charting the rise of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, was expected to launch Will Smith into the Oscar race for his portrayal of the girls’ demanding dad and coach, Richard Williams. And it did just that, providing Smith with his most challenging role in two decades — a loving, egocentric father who, it turns out, does know what’s best for his daughters.

So, mission accomplished, much to the delight of the 500 masked, fully vaccinated, COVID-tested festivalgoers who packed Telluride’s Galaxy Theater and cheered (well, as much as you can, with your face covered) during the closing credits of this feel-good film.

But the night’s biggest news actually came during those closing credits, which unfurled accompanied by a new Beyoncé song, “Be Alive,” an instantly engaging original number that the singer wrote with DIXSON for the film.

That means that Beyoncé will perform at the Oscars next year. There’s no way the academy is snubbing her again after the whole fiasco over “Spirit,” her sweeping anthem from “The Lion King” that somehow failed to earn a nod because voters couldn’t stop themselves from giving Diane Warren another nomination.

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Leave it to Beyoncé to save the Oscars. Because if the combination of “King Richard” and Queen Bey can’t drum up a little interest, then the situation is grimmer than anyone cares to admit.

“King Richard” comes with the approval of the Williams family, with Venus and Serena on board as executive producers, along with their sister, Isha Price. Their involvement no doubt pushed the movie into a full-blown inspirational, aspirational tale, though the sisters’ story is — and continues to be — a remarkable one by any estimation.

Introducing the movie at the Galaxy, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (his first film, “Monsters and Men,” won a special jury prize at the 2018 Sundance festival) said everything started with the family and, indeed, “King Richard” immerses the audience into the Williamses’ lives in Compton, the five sisters sleeping in one bedroom.

Will Smith pushes Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney in a grocery cart filled with tennis balls on a tennis court
Will Smith as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in “King Richard.”
(Warner Bros.)

Richard and their loving, devoted mother, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis, as good here as she was in “When They See Us” and “Lovecraft Country”) shepherd them while holding down full-time jobs. Craving respect, Richard gets into the “champion-raising business,” devising a plan for Venus and Serena’s success and sticking to it even when it defies convention.

Smith is 52 and, sporting gray-flecked stubble, we’ve never seen him this far from Fresh Prince freshness. The movie harnesses his charisma to fine effect, channeling it into Richard’s stubborn, ego-driven episodes and adding lighter, equally insightful touches too, as when Dad calls a family meeting, shows his girls the 1950 Disney animated version of “Cinderella” and then asks them to tell him what they learned. None of them came up with his takeaway — stay humble — so he threatened to show it again.

Green grounds the movie in these scenes, capturing their lives in Compton and the attempts to compete with families possessing the luxuries of wealth and time. He has assembled a terrific cast, including Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as younger sister Serena, and given the ensemble room to find the small moments that make them feel like a family. This grounding pays off later with some lump-in-the-throat moments as the girls grow up and Venus comes to understand that she’s not just representing herself but every Black girl who’d like to follow in her footsteps.

There’s another beautiful scene when, before a match, Oracene talks to Venus about Sojourner Truth, the Black abolitionist and activist who, Mom says, believed young Black women deserved to be seen and deserved to be heard. “King Richard,” which lands in theaters and on HBO Max on Nov. 19, embodies that truth.


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