“King Richard”: Trouble in the King’s Court


Source: New York Times

Will Teare

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyaa Sydney, Demi Singleton, and Jon Bernthal

Release Date: Nov 19, 2021

Rating: 3/5

When someone has talked about the new film, King Richard, it’s typically the same sentence. “Did you hear about the Will Smith movie about Serena and Venus Williams?” Read it one more time…does that seem a little paradoxical to you too? Yet, it’s that very sentence that is at the forefront of the debate of King Richard; the debate over the line between the real man and character. A valid discussion but a two-sided one, about the compelling but occasionally troubled film called King Richard

Will Smith plays Richard Williams in a way we’ve never seen Smith before. Smith trades in his good looks and easy wit for an ill-fitting beard with a touch of grey, a Louisiana southern accent, and a hunched-over posture. Equipped with some unfashionable knee-high socks, short shorts, and a dream, Williams embarks on his quest to push his daughters to the limit and fulfill his much talked about “plan” he’s had for them “before they were even born.” That plan? Make Serena and Venus Williams two of the greatest tennis players of all time. 

It’s a “transformational” performance by a well-known leading man, a tried and tested formula to the Best Actor Oscar in only a few short months. I mean, with the kind of underdog biopic story about a complicated but likable character played by a big star that occasionally mentions race and class issues, the movie is a textbook Oscar bait. It even has a new Beyoncé song in the end credits to secure a Best Original Song. Much like Green Book, Driving Miss. Daisy or The King’s Speech, this film is a very safe crowd-pleaser built from the ground up to win a few Academy Awards. 

Now to that debate mentioned earlier. The film is constantly singing the praise of Richard Williams. You don’t cast Will Smith in a role just for you to hate his character. However, Williams is a flawed man whose morality is often up for debate. His motivations, though admirable and clearly brought about with the love he has for his children, come through as a little vain. He’s an insecure guy who constantly makes it his job to prove people wrong. Any non-believer is an enemy, and even his supporters are just a means to an end. The trouble with the movie is that we don’t delve into that enough. A throw-away line in an argument with Williams’ wife, Oracene (a natural and fully realized performance by Aunjanue Ellis) even mentions a disowned son from a previous wife of Williams’. Again, a topic discussed as quickly as it is forgotten. Or maybe how Williams’ faith as a Jehovah’s Witness impacted the development of his daughters and their family life. Too much about the questionable nature of Richard Williams is left at surface-level and any critical discussion about Williams’ origin and his experience growing up as a black man in the Jim Crow era south is left behind. That very topic should be vital to understanding Williams, but it’s largely glossed over.  

Luckily, the film has a few saving graces. One is that all the performers, while nothing considerably outstanding, are doing really, really well. Will Smith is the obvious standout. While his character is troubled and mishandled, his performance isn’t. Instead, he does his best to ground and strip away as much of that movie star charisma that made him who he is today and try to give us a tangible human being. While personally I can’t help but want him to fly alien spaceships with Jeff Goldblum or maybe hunt aliens down with Tommy Lee Jones, I can say with confidence he’s an easy nomination for Best Actor this year. Speaking of Academy Awards contenders, Ellis as Oracene is incredible. Oracene is a fully realized person who is on board with Williams’ plans, but is a much needed critic. Additionally, Serena and Venus are played by newcomers Demi Singleton and Sanniyaa Sidney respectively. Both of them, while they focus on Venus a little more(a good choice considering the media is a little more focused on Serena) is a fair choice, they both do great embodying two icons of the modern era. A tough job for any actor, especially kids their age. They’re even impressive tennis players to boot, every shot is hit with an impressive amount of power and precision. I personally can’t wait to see what they do next. Last but certainly not least is Jon Bernthal. I assure you, the Bernthal gang stays winning. He comes into this movie with a lot of energy and breathes a lot of life into it. He plays Rick Macci, the second coach for the Williams’ sisters. Nothing award-winning, but Jon Bernthal in any movie is always a welcome sight. Bernthal hasn’t missed once, and it was nice to see him play a good guy for once. 

Additionally, the story is hard to not get swept up in. We’ve seen it a thousand times, but there is a reason the sports movie formula works. How can you not get swept up in the family dynamic? How can you not feel for the underdog? How could you not have a smile on your face when Serena and Venus annihilate some privileged white kids time and time again? So, despite its glaring issues, it makes for a good story with some great performances. This review may be heavy-handed in criticism because when this movie works, it works. There’s just not anything overly impressive to make a note of. Williams isn’t King, and neither is the movie. Rating: 3/5