The thing with biopics is that a lot of them tend to pack in too much of the subject’s life and not go all that deeply. In the case of King Richard, the focus is mostly on Richard Williams, father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams. The movie’s span is short, starting around the early nineties and ending at Venus’s professional debut at the Bank of the West Classic in 1994.
King Richard is a very personal film, produced by not only Will Smith but the Williams sisters themselves, and it presents Richard Williams in a loving but honest light. We all know the Williams sisters, but without their dad, their paths to stardom would have looked quite different.
Richard, played by Will Smith, lives in Compton with his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), his two daughters, and three stepdaughters. Every day, rain or shine, he’s out on a dumpy tennis court with Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) and a shopping cart full of old tennis balls, so much so that the neighbors complain and a certain gang sniffs around making lewd remarks at Richard’s oldest stepdaughter, Tunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew) while she studies on a bench.
Richard knows he’s got to do better than Compton, not only for his family’s well-being, but the bumpy playing field makes it hard to up the tennis game. Fortunately, he’s got the gift of the gab, and he can charm his way into securing them coaches and better training environments. Put it this way: Richard does not think small.
However, our title character isn’t one of those dogged stage dads who lives through his kids and never takes his eyes off the brass ring. His desire for his children to excel is exceeded only by his desire for them to be humble, well-adjusted, well-educated adults who know how to be themselves and avoid destructive lifestyles. He’s appalled at the behavior of other tennis parents and keeps his girls from playing junior matches because he doesn’t want that self-indulgent behavior to rub off on them. A news report about prodigy Jennifer Capriati‘s drug bust only confirms Richard’s reservations.
Still, Richard finds he has to give a little. It’s not enough to buck the system; his daughters might have a few things to say about their lives as well.
King Richard may seem ponderous at two-and-a-half hours long, but the whole thing is a real pleasure because it gives the viewer time to get to know the characters and like them or at least care about what happens. This is a fun-loving family who are also very disciplined, but they don’t beat each other over the head. They love each other enough to talk things out and be honest, which is refreshing.
Will Smith gives an Oscar-worthy performance here; there were a lot of times I had to remind myself that he was Will Smith because he disappears into this role. Some of his trademark goofiness still comes through, but he never breaks character once. It’s really gripping to watch. Absolutely fantastic.
For that matter, the whole cast is terrific, and next to Will Smith I think my favorite performance came from Aunjanue Ellis. This woman is gutsy. She doesn’t hesitate to remind Richard that they’re supposed to be a team; that submission or silence on her part doesn’t mean agreement. And her tennis game is just as good if not better than Richard’s, thank you. She has a lot of fist-pumping moments throughout the movie and it’s awesome.
Another aspect of the film that was handled well was its portrayal of racism, and as a native of Louisiana, Richard experienced a lot of hardships which later motivated his decisions as a father and mentor. He doesn’t hate white people, per se, but he balks at he or his family being treated differently because of their color, and he rightfully doesn’t make deals with anyone who uses them as tokens.
On the other hand, Brandy reminds Richard that he has a responsibility to rise above his base reactions, and just to emphasize the point, the N-word is tossed around a few times. Richard can be a jerk sometimes, and the big question is whether or not he’ll recognize that.
The lack of perfection on the part of the characters makes this movie work so well, and while the outcome of the film isn’t at all mysterious, seeing everything pan out is a solid pleasure.
The What A Character! Blogathon is on the morrow. Thanks for reading, all…
King Richard can be seen in theaters or on HBO Max (available until December 19).
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