King Richard

I want to King Richard without much confidence.  A Will Smith-led biopic that was so obviously shooting for “inspirational” seemed to me as likely as not to hit “cheesy” or “obvious” or “contrived” instead…or some combination of all of the above. But King Richard ends up working well, as legitimately compelling drama.

Some have criticized the movie for focusing less on the accomplishments of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams and more on the male bravado of their father, as if that takes away from the achievements of the sisters.  But I think that’s overstated, and it’s implausibley to think that somehow the two sports-stars did what they did without the influence of people around them.  And while much of the movie’s attention is on their father Richard, he is not alone in helping to shape the girls’ futures—just as much or more credits must be given to their mother Brandy.

Indeed, it’s the obvious flaws in Richard that are highlighted at different points in the film which help to keep it from being the schmaltzy mess it could have been. 

The man has amazing ambition for his kids, but he also has a massive chip on his shoulder that almost loses his family in the process. 

And yet he’s doing what he’s doing for the right reasons—not for his own advancement as one might find in a more clichéd melodrama, but because he sees not only what they could become but also how easily they could fail to get there.  It’s clear that he feels the forces that are at work against them as a lower-middle class black family from Compton are so strong that they will only be defeated by constant extraordinary efforts.

So yeah, a man willing to give it all for the sake of his daughters…surely, that’s something to admire, and also strong material for a solid film.

Will Smith is outstanding in the role, making Richard Williams compelling and complete, and far less attractive than the movie star is usually seen.  Aunjanue Ellis is just as good as Brandy.  These two performances would be enough to carry the film, but both actresses who play the young tennis greats are also solid—Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena.  One of the nicest things about the movie is the relationship between the two young women, and that they both have with their three other sisters (played by Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Danielle Lawson and Layla Crawford).  The ensemble of the five young actresses is amazing and fully believable—the laughter, the in-jokes, and the banter all feel exactly like a real family. 

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green finds the right tone for the drama, both in the family interactions and in the competition that older sister Venus finds on the court as she makes the transition to pro sports. Venus’ first professional tournament culminates in a nail-biting match against the more established Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, which makes for a great sports movie climaxes, one of the best I’ve seen anyway.

For a variety of reasons, King Richard may turn out to be the last movie I see in the cinema for a while, but if so, it was a great to go out on.  

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