King Richard, 2021.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Starring Will Smith, Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn, Susie Abromeit, Dylan McDermott, Judith Chapman, Katrina Begin, Erin Cummings, Andy Bean, Kevin Dunn, Craig Tate, Calvin Clausell Jr., Noah Bean, Vaughn W. Hebron, and Chet Grissom.
A look at how tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams became who they are after the coaching from their father Richard Williams.
A tennis instructor inquiries to Richard Williams (Will Smith, admirably playing a flawed persona and doing so with controversy and well-meaning conviction) which of his ambitious and skilled daughters is Venus and which is Serena. Richard simplifies; the taller one is Venus, and the shorter one is Serena. This exchange comes over an hour into King Richard, where director Reinaldo Marcus Green, having already released one narratively misguided film somewhat redeemed by terrific performances this year in Joe Bell) and debut writer Zach Baylin have shown they care even less about distinguishing the gifted players beyond the sport. Hell, that’s how I was able to tell them apart five minutes in. Here, we have two of the most celebrated living legend athletes in the world, barely defined or illuminated aside from what they can do on the court.
Not to get cynical about it, but that’s because King Richard is an Oscar-bait vehicle for Will Smith. That’s also not to say Richard Williams shouldn’t have his story told, but I can’t for the life of me imagine you would want to see a film about Serena and Venus Williams told him the perspective of their outspoken, eccentric, demanding, walking contradiction of a father who sometimes behaves questionably while trying to provide the best life for his family. And that’s taking the film at face value without prying too much into the real-life details and whether or not aspects of the character have been sanitized to make it as palatable as possible for Academy Award voters.
Playing devil’s advocate, King Richard also understands that biopics are less effective when chronicling an entire life, here focusing on Serena and Venus Williams (played by Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney, a piece of information you have to go a ways down the IMDb casting list to find, further proving that the two biggest attractions are kind of wasted) at ages 11-14. Specifically, the film starts by showcasing their Compton life consisting of intense training (sometimes during pouring rain, although the girls enjoy it) and searching for a coach, running the Juniors circuit, and finding the perfect time to take them pro (often butting heads with Jon Bernthal’s hasty but qualified coach, offering his students expenses and a roof under his Florida resort). Throughout the various trials and tribulations those quests present, Richard hypes up his girls to mainstream media while tending to the rest of his children and wife Brandi (an outstanding Aunjanue Ellis, not afraid to rip into her husband when he’s either making mistakes or an ass of himself).
There is a part where Richard takes out a VHS copy of Cinderella, forcing the family to watch it, subsequently asking what message they took away from the animated classic. It’s an amusing scene where no one correctly says what Richard wants to hear, who then explains the importance of humbleness. It’s a lesson coming from a guy petrified to let Venus go pro (even when she and everyone around her agree it’s time) that will talk to journalists bragging about how he has future GOATs while also lobbing loaded statements like “tennis parents should be shot.” Richard is nothing short of intriguing when it comes to pinpointing what’s going through his mind, and to the film’s credit, there is a good explanation for why he is so overprotective. He also wants to ensure that his children are not sucked into a system only concerned with exploiting their talent for ridiculous amounts of green, as much as he does want high-end contracts and sponsorships for them.
However, King Richard feels less concerned with confronting the titular father’s problematic characteristics, which is a shame considering they make for his best scenes; Will Smith vulnerable and acknowledging his character’s flaws and fears and getting called out by his wife are far more riveting than sainthood. If 2/3rds of the movie focuses on Richard, it needs to be in a challenging context that settles for less than feel-good sports drama embracing all the clichés. And boy does King Richard chart out a mostly familiar path, which is disappointing given the incredible talent in front of the camera.
Once the sisters are aged up to 14 years old, King Richard does settle into that perfect rhythm; a father hell-bent on making the best choices for his family taken to task when those choices are often dismissive of the women surrounding him, Venus is given a voice of her own, and lofty stakes come into play. Now, if you are a fan of Serena more than Venus, just forget about it (maybe if Will Smith doesn’t win the Oscar, there can be a sequel focusing on that relationship), but at least one of the daughters morphs into an actual character that does more than smashing balls on a tennis court. But it still doesn’t shake the frustration of the film having the wrong perspective and doing with Venus and Serena next to nothing for 100 minutes. Maybe one of these days, Reinaldo Marcus Green will figure out which character his movie should be about.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com