King Richard (2021)
King Richard confounds me and also doesn’t. I can understand what the point was and shrug my shoulders at its choice of narrative perspective. It’s a hagiography that settles on audience foreknowledge to alleviate any tension, or sustained interest, and at its core is a contradiction of a man deserving scrutiny but served up for celebration. As my pal Michael Galusick put it, “I can’t believe there’s a movie about the rise to greatness for the Williams sisters [Venus and Serena], and it’s centered around their dad.” King Richard is an awards-season hopeful, produced by the Williams sisters, and a questionable biopic with a questionable perspective aimed at telling the hidden story behind the meteoric success of two of the greatest tennis stars of all time.
In the late 1980s, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is working all night as a security guard and spending his mornings to train his two pre-teen daughters, Venus and Serena, in tennis. Richard is convinced they will be superstars, that he and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis, Lovecraft Country) will be rich and move from their Compton, California neighborhood. Richard gets beaten by local gangs, studies tennis magazines and instructors, and tries to get his girls formal training from professionals while holding them back to his demands. He has a plan, he repeatedly tells others, for their success, and nothing will dissuade him from it.
Firstly, we finally get a movie about the Williams sisters and their dominant rise through the world of tennis, and the movie is almost entirely centered upon their demanding father and his vigilant bordering on abusive training regimen? Richard is meant to be a contradiction and had the movie explored his contradictions in full this could have been an illuminating character study and warts-and-all biopic. However, it’s a movie that fully relies on every viewer’s implicit understanding of the great success of the Williams sisters, so the entire movie serves as a two-hour-plus “I told you so” to Richard’s doubters. Silly neighbor, questioning whether forcing his daughters to perform for hours in the pouring rain constitutes child endangerment. Silly wife, questioning why Richard has insisted his family move into the neighborhood of Compton to better raise his children through adversity and still complain about the dangers that Compton presents and that his daughters must rise above to leave and make something of themselves. Silly tennis coaches, questioning Richard, a man who has no tennis background himself, for demanding his sideline coaching be prioritized over the professionals. Silly “tennis parents,” the kinds that Richard says should be shot, even though he behaves the same way. Silly Williams children, feeling that their demands will be heard and acknowledged as far as their own personal paths and that the other Williams sisters will earn a similar level of attention and affection. Silly sports agents, for being skeptical about this man who says he had a 70-page “plan” for athletic success before his kids were even born and preaching that his unorthodox methods, including paying neighborhood kids to harass and intimidate his girls while they played, would be proven correct. Because, I suppose, it all worked out because Venus and Serena had tremendous success and were inspirations to millions of young African American kids who could finally see themselves in a sport that was privileged and exclusive for generations. He was right, so all of his unorthodox, crazy, dubious methods must have worked, so intuits the movie. It’s less because Venus and Serena have talent and skills and more that their dad worked really really hard and suffered.
With the involvement of the Williams sisters, King Richard only ever goes so far when it comes to critical analysis of its title character. He is certainly presented as a dedicated, hard-working dreamer, but his eccentricities and self-aggrandizing get sanitized as “tough father” when that toughness can cross over into obsession and abuse. It’s like watching 2014’s Whiplash but turned into a feel-good inspirational tale for the ages. At least Whiplash explored the harm of obsession and the pessimistic belief system that whatever it takes to a achieve greatness is excusable. With King Richard, the movie is not at all critical of this ethos. Oh sure, there are points where Brandy Williams speaks up with measured irritation at her husband making rash decisions, excluding the involvement and contributions of others to see his great plan through, and these moments are easily the best in the movie. Finally, someone is pressing this man on his methods and making him confront himself and his flaws. But then Brandy blends back into the background until another half hour goes by and the movie needs to tap her services again. This is the same woman, by the way, who in real life Richard hid her birth control pills in order to back her into a pregnancy and begin his master plan. That’s real. That happened. Same with intentionally keeping his children in Compton so they would learn adversity (tragic side note: one of his older daughters, Yetunde, died in 2003 near a gang house in Compton). And also the fact that Richard walked out on his previous family before Brandy, leaving behind five children all under the age of eight. When he speaks in the movie about always being there for his girls, unlike his father who ran out on him, it rings hollow with the full unflattering context.
The movie seems to adopt Richard’s belief that if he didn’t push so hard for so long, while also withholding them from the tennis juniors circuit, denying them matches for three years, then perhaps they too would have burnt out and gone down a similar path as young superstar Jennifer Capriati. Except Venus’ first breakout success is because of her own insistence and Richard finally, at long last, acquiescing to the choices being made by his own daughters. Who knows, maybe she would have had success even earlier and not burnt out? It’s just as plausible considering that Richard’s regimen included forcing the girls to earn all As in high school on top of rigorous training. I think this detail is meant to make Richard seem like he values their education on par with their sports performances, but it reads to me as another high-pressure burden he’s beset upon his beleaguered daughters to meet his personal definition of success.
Again, if the movie portrayed this man in a more honest approach, questioning his methods and bringing light to his inherent contradictions, holding people to standards he was unable to hold to himself, taking credit solely for the success of the hard-working women in his family, then the movie would have been an intriguing and revelatory character drama. It would have justified shifting the perspective from Serena and Venus to Richard. But the script by Zach Baylin is too uninterested about those interesting details and contradictions. It knows Serena and Venus succeed so it all becomes a long journey of people doubting him only to be proven wrong. The movie feels more than enough like it reaches its emotional climax, father acceding to daughter as she approaches the big stage, and then there is twenty more minutes of tennis action. Why do we need a drawn-out tennis match at this point? The montage of real-life footage of tennis championships achieves the same emotional effect. If the decision was to finally dwell in the excellence and tenacity of Venus as an athlete cutting loose, then why does director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, Monsters and Men) keep favoring other people’s perspectives during the climactic debut match? We keep cutting back to Richard watching, or those in the crowd, or a squat TV screen monitor. I understand the nature of editing coverage, but if this is celebrating Venus’ moment and handing over the baton to her, then why not give her our full focus rather than repeated check-ins on Richard basking in the ascendant triumph of his hard work?
Anyway, if you can take King Richard on its own terms, maybe it will prove fitfully entertaining and inspirational as it follows its formula to the bitter end. It’s received widespread critical praise especially for Smith’s humbled performance. I think Smith is perfectly good, but I also think his inherent charisma, and a generation of audience good will, project onto the character to more excuse Richard’s questionable actions. It would be like watching Tom Hanks portray Jeffry Dahmer; you might not condone all his actions but, come one, that’s American treasure Tom Hanks eating human flesh there. As a sports movie or a father/daughter movie, certain fans of those features might plug into the emotional beats of a feel-good universe and ignore the problematic parts. Maybe we’ll get a story of Venus or Serena from their own perspective, one that sees their father in less flattering terms. In the meantime, King Richard is a feel-good biopic that made me feel bad the more facts I uncovered, and its hero worship of a, at best, complicated man without adequate hesitation made me feel like this was a gift from the Williams sisters for their dear old dad’s ego and legacy.
Nate’s Grade: C