The storybook ascension of tennis-playing sisters Venus and Serena Williams to the top of their sport is that of legend. Unlike the preteens of well-to-do families with limitless budgets, the younger Williams girls played on rundown courts in bad neighborhoods with hand-me-down equipment and—most importantly—no ability to pay for professional lessons.
For most parents, this would mean their children would remain talented amateurs for the rest of their lives, but for Richard Williams (Will Smith), it’s a mere stumbling block. In one of his few instances of reality and clarity, Richard is correct in recognizing that his daughters will be future major stars. His mission is to convince others he’s right, and in the long run, he succeeds. But along the way, he gains many enemies, which ultimately makes the journey all the more tenuous for Venus and Serena.
Smith, Venus, and Serena Are Co-producers
Three of the six producers of the film are Smith, Venus, and Serena, which in itself wouldn’t be an indicator of favorable bias, yet they went even further by hiring a little-known feature director (Reinaldo Marcus Green) and a first-time screenwriter (Zach Baylin). For such a high-profile movie from a major studio with a high-dollar star (Smith was reportedly paid $40 million), hiring relatively neophyte filmmakers is suspect. It seems the writer and director here are merely hired guns following orders.
Even in his most wanting films (“Gemini Man,” “Collateral Beauty,” “Focus,” all of the “Bad Boys” flicks), Smith displays an innate charm and immense appeal that can’t be faked or learned; he’s very likable. In “King Richard,” Smith plays a man who uses his children for personal gain, yet masks it under a cloak of concerned and caring father and mentor. In Richard’s defense, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) are portrayed as willing participants in the journey.
Yet given Richard’s draconian methods, the girls likely had little choice in the matter. At one point, perceiving a slight from them on the way home from a match, Richard drops his daughters off at a convenience store in Compton and drives away, leaving them to find their own way home on foot. Only after a stern admonishment from their subservient mother, his then-wife, Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis), does Richard stop and allow the girls to get back in the family van. By anyone’s definition, this is child abuse, if not outright child endangerment.
Richard’s Goal Is a Free Ride
From the get-go, it’s made clear that Richard’s ultimate goal is to get professional-level instruction (read: free lessons) for his daughters, and he does so twice, then, through misguided ego, self-sabotages his efforts.
After convincing the coach of John McEnroe and Pete Sampras (Tony Goldwyn) to give Venus a chance, Richard usurps him by interrupting and contradicting him at every turn.
Another coach (Jon Bernthal) makes a deal with Richard—one that included all-expense-paid full-family relocation to Florida with all of the perks—but, on a whim, he attempts to renege on the arrangement.
Although it’s alluded to that Richard has other children, there’s no mention of his two previous marriages (and another after Brandi) or out-of-wedlock offspring delivered by various non-wives.
In the movie’s most troubling scene, Richard (carrying a gun owned by a security company he works for) is seconds away from murdering a local hoodlum who aggressively hits on one of his (non-tennis playing) daughters. But at the last second, Richard is beaten to the punch for other reasons.
On multiple occasions (three each) Richard utters an offensive racial slur. He also mentions multiple past encounters with the Ku Klux Klan while he was growing up in Louisiana, none of which could be verified through any other reputable sources.
If this is the “softened” movie version of Richard, one can only imagine the true nature of the genuine article.
Painfully Overlong and Just Plain Painful
“Selective omission” and sugarcoating aside, “King Richard” simply isn’t a very good movie. Running 138 minutes, it’s at least a half-hour longer than it needs to be and spends far too much time in the third act concentrating on one of Venus’s early professional matches.
The production also treats Serena as a fleeting, almost incidental character. Granted, this is a movie mostly about Richard, but relegating the Serena character to such low visibility and little importance is a huge disservice to the audience.
Making a compelling movie about the Williams family is difficult on many levels. First and foremost, we already know it has a happy ending, so any and all possible narrative hurdles will be ultimately overcome. Had this been a film about black tennis pioneers Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe, there would have certainly been more on the line, story-wise. But next to nothing here comes as a surprise.
There has been much talk and industry-insider buzz regarding Smith’s performance—much of which has made him a likely nominee in the upcoming Oscar race. Given the lack of truly memorable leading male performances (thus far) in 2021, it’s easy to understand this train of thought, and given Smith’s clout and the perceived “messaging” of the film, a nomination is beyond likely.
In this movie, Richard is an unintended anti-hero ostensibly looking to make life better for his children but somehow seems more concerned with protecting his easily-bruised, thin-skinned ego. He’s not an admirable role model; he’s a textbook example of a misguided, self-absorbed, tunnel-vision parent.
But is it “great acting” when a nice guy actor of respectable range strips himself of all appeal and plays what might be the most dislikable stage dad in the history of professional sports?
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Stars: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn
Running Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Nov. 19, 2021
Rating: 2 out of 5