November 19th, 2021
MOVIE: KING RICHARD
STARRING: WILL SMITH, AUNJANUE ELLIS, JON BERNTHAL, TONY GOLDWYN, SANIYYA SIDNEY, DEMI SINGLETON
DIRECTED BY: REINALDO MARCUS GREEN
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 2 STARS (Out of 4)
The comments I kept hearing before seeing King Richard was that it was a big crowd-pleaser. That’s not a term that I’m afraid of, in fact sometimes I welcome it, which were some of the same complaints about Belfast last week. It’s also not a term that you shy away from with a sports film, where the story of an underdog can often lift the spirits of the world up, and have everyone leave with a smile. I wanted that from King Richard, but as I walked away, something annoyed me, a nagging sense that the story I just saw was not the full potential. King Richard is the story of Richard Williams (Will Smith), father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams, and how his methods, and persistence set his two daughters on a path to become the champions they would be. What King Richard is not about is Venus and Serena, and for me that would have been the real story. It’s not that the two daughters are not a part of the narrative, but director Reinaldo Marcus Green attempts to make this story about the voice behind the athlete, instead of the competitors between the lines, and because of that, King Richard is often a predictable, and lacking in enough drama to make the final result crowd-pleasing. This is more like a king without his crown.
It begins in Compton, California, where the Williams family lives, Richard (Smith), his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), and their five daughters, where the lives of these women have already been set on a path, with no guarantees, but with the mind of Richard Williams, his plan is the way, and he has the proof to show for it. But in the world of tennis, making your African-American daughters the next champions is an uphill battle, where the sport is predominantly white, and for those financially well off, the dreams for Richard Williams are big, but he has two phenoms with commitment, and King Richard captures how this family defied all the odds to make these dreams a reality.
The narrative structure of King Richard is not unlike many sports movies, where it begins at a low point and climbs to a peak moment of success. The screenplay is written by Zach Baylin, which makes sure to hit the beats of a biopic, with the tough experiences of gang violence around their neighborhood, followed by montages of Richard working his sales pitch of his daughters to other tennis coaches, or the brutal practice sessions in the rain that helped Venus and Serena become what they are. What is not added to the direction of King Richard is any sense of style by Reinaldo Marcus Green. The approach seems to let the performance from Will Smith do the lifting, which as the father and not the tennis player, leaves the narrative limited to him having tough conversations, clapping for his kids, and pacing back and forth on the sidelines. There’s barely any introspective look to the minds of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), when we finally get a chance to hear their voices it’s typically in agreement with their father. The pair of tennis coaches in their lives- Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal- are both at odds with Richard, but offer little other than bickering adversaries to Richard’s plan. I was incredibly thankful for the excellent performance from Aunjanue Ellis, who adds a side of pushback in the film’s major argument in the center, which also gives us a deeper background into Richard Williams’ own faults. That scene is well done and also a mirror held up to what King Richard is missing.
Even the sports stuff seems to lack in the true trials and tribulations of a child athlete. Any moment of acknowledgement of Venus and Serena exist in their brief snippets of competition, practicing, or saying “yes daddy”. It’s not until the final act where King Richard becomes strictly about Venus and her debut in the Bank of the West tournament in 1994, where even then the narrative makes it seem like she was in a championship match, but actually lost in the semi-finals. It’s after that part where I truly wished I saw a movie about the Williams’ sisters, a pair of athletes that have done more for the sport of tennis in America than anyone has ever done. It’s their story that has more triumph and their rise against the pressures of society and their parents that would have made a 4-star story.
The performance from Will Smith in King Richard is certainly nice, where the legendary actor embodies his character, and adds a certain amount of grace to someone that could have been scrutinized even more. There’s a deeper story at hand, about the driving force of parents, or the way a family can succeed when they bond together for a common goal. The better story is focused on what Venus and Serena experienced, as two young kids, forgoing their childhoods to be thrust into the spotlight, having the world criticise their father, or the mountains of self doubt that could exist inside a child trying to be the next Wimbledon champion. Richard Williams is their father, a major part of their story, but not the main event, and that’s a big reason why I didn’t see this movie as King.
KING RICHARD IS IN THEATERS AND ON HBO MAX THIS FRIDAY NOVEMBER 19TH, 2021
Written by: Leo Brady