Director Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenplay Zach Baylin
Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal, Dylan McDermott
If ever there is a sport in which the term implicit bias exists, it’s golf. If there is a second, it’s tennis. When Venus Williams came along in the mid to late nineties, the first thing I remember about her is her father’s braggadocio about his second daughter. He happened to be right when Venus’ sister eventually eclipsed the tennis star’s great career, along with everyone else’s. All along the press seemed to imply that the sisters succeeded “despite” their problematic father figure. The secondary story was a kind of amazement that not one, but two prodigies could rise out of the Compton area of Los Angeles.
King Richard attempts to tell the story from the perspective of the family. The work is spearheaded by the Williams sisters who brought in Smith to play their father figure. They move right into the problematic image by giving the title of King Richard. If nothing else, this shows a respect for a driving force in their careers.
The story starts out in Compton, with Richard scrapping up any loose balls he can find to help his daughters train. He spends much of this time producing videos advertising his daughters for potential coaches. They finally find Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), who takes Venus (Sidney) on for free, while his wife Brandy (Ellis) continues to work with Serena (Singleton) on the side. This is a subtle trend that will continue throughout.
Richard Williams is a man with a plan. He wrote out the details of their career and he is always pushing forward. His “confidence” amounts to pressure for everyone else. Smith does a great job creating a sometimes sympathetic and often complicated man who creates as many problems as he hopes to solve. Some might push the portrayal to a sanitized sheen, and to be sure, we aren’t seeing an overabundance of warts.
The gift of King Richard, though, is that those warts are showing. We learn mid way through the film that Richard has children from several sources. They have a blended family and they’re doing the best they can to make it work while Venus and Serena build up to a career even before they’ve reached high school.
We see several examples of questionable decisions, some brought out of spite, others out of concern for how other tennis prodigies like Jennifer Capriati are struggling. These decisions confound several of those entrenched in the system. They also confound the young prodigies as well. Some of this, is ramped up for for dramatic effect.
There doesn’t need to be much in the way of added drama, however. What the Williams family did as a whole is astonshing. If they’d been born of privilege to the most entrenched circumstances, two incredible champions in one family is unheard of, to say the least. Privilege is not where the Williams’ came from, though.
King Richard is the type of film that deserves a sequel. It’s enough to see the rise from humble beginnings, but there is a shortage of Serena in this tale. Her rise has to be documented, as well Venus’ ability to stay in the spotlight along side of her sister, who is quite clearly one of the best tennis players of all time. Venus would be in the discussion if not for Serena.
There is more to Richard’s complicated tale too. Brandy points out quite clearly in a crucial scene the difference in their parenting styles, in the need for her husband to have the world appreciate his parenting on a grand scale.
This is a good film, for its intent. We are supposed to get a feel for Venus, Serena and their early experiences in the tennis world, as guided by a revered, if complex set of parents. The most complex parent gets the title of the film, if only because we know, eventually the daughters will get all of the glory. Talk about inspiration. Talk about greatness. Talk about The Williams Sisters.
(***1/2 out of *****)