“The world has never respected me. But they will respect you.” Paraphrasing, but what Richard Williams (Will Smith) is telling his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) is that he, since the moment he was born, was minimized. Through a combination of race, poor economic status, and limited opportunities, he is self-aware of the miniscule potential of his life becoming a Hollywood movie story.
Just because Richard’s own life has been less than ideal doesn’t mean that his kids’ lives have to follow the same path. He and his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) grew up as athletes and Richard took a liking to tennis slightly before Venus and Serena were born. He’s driven to push them to be the best tennis players ever, writing up 85 page plans for each. In Compton, California, the situation isn’t ideal, and tennis’ elitism status has often implicitly and explicitly kept out people of color. Richard knows this, but in his mind, his best laid plans are as close to a guarantee as one could get. His plans can’t be done alone, which pushes him to seek out the best of the best in the tennis world, from Coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to Coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal).
Before Lavar Ball, there was Richard Williams. OK, that may be forgetting a few loudly vocal sports parents who came in the years between Father Williams and Father Ball. I’d argue though that Williams in some ways, pre-Internet, gave a blueprint for marketing your offspring. Be supportive, but relentless, sometimes to the edge of obsession. Be self-aware, but know how to grab headlines.
Before launching into the rightful and effusive praise for the thespian playing the titular character, King Richard brings a strong cast to the court. Youngsters Sidney (Venus is more of the obvious focus here than Serena, as she experienced huge success before her younger sister catapulted into GOAT conversations) and Singleton hold serve with the legendary box-office star, and as importantly, look the part as fluid and skillfully growing tennis prodigies. Ellis tends to be ultra-reliable in all features she’s in, no different here as the steady matriarch who supports Richard, but not blindly. Bernthal and Goldwyn round out a superb supporting cast; their characters bring levity and a challenging disposition to Richard.
However, it is no surprise that the buzz for King Richard revolves around Smith, who, from a drama perspective, hasn’t had a truly smash performance or movie since 2007’s The Pursuit of Happyness. As Richard Williams, Smith does have that highlighted scene or two that will be played during all major awards shows, you can tell he is going for it. In totality though, his work as the lead feels very natural, as in you feel his presence in a necessary way (I do not think a smaller actor could carry the necessary cocksure and bullheaded gravitas Richard operated with), but he still manages to blend in and defer when necessary. This is easily the actor’s strongest volley at a Best Actor nomination, and potentially, a win.
King Richard is directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, his third film helmed after an ambitious and asymmetrical sophomore outing focused on racial injustice in Monsters and Men. King Richard plays with similar themes in a different arena, focusing more on the microaggressions that came to Williams and his kin whether his daughters’ talents were wanted or not. Written by Zach Baylin, the sisters’ rise is adjacent to the infamous Rodney King incident, an approximation of experiences that Richard knew all too well growing up in the South. From a character end, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from Richard’s abrasiveness, fully acknowledging that while his entrepreneurial spirit can be lauded, Venus and Serena’s successes were reached sometimes in spite of their father’s tendency to put his foot in his mouth. Obviously, as some biopics tend to do, only so much can be covered and often, what is covered is sanitized to a degree. Akin to, say, Straight Outta Compton, there’s no doubt that a few sordid details were removed and/or left out completely.
King Richard looks at the patriarch of the Williams family, caught sometimes between a character study and a traditional, elongated sports movie in tone, feel, structure, etc. The latter is not a totally bad thing; formula flicks can satisfy with an assured direction, a superstar performance, and a myriad of interlocking supporting ones. Nonetheless, it is an adept movie on a base story level that every Oscar season carries as a lifting crowd pleaser.
Photo credits go to impawards.com, variety.com, aceshowbiz.com, and usatoday.com.
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