REVIEW: King Richard [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 144 minutes
    Release Date: November 19th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Director(s): Reinaldo Marcus Green
    Writer(s): Zach Baylin

We need to make two more kids.

You couldn’t watch tennis in the mid-90s without hearing an opinion about Richard Williams lurking behind his camera in the stands while his daughters Venus and Serena took the American program and the sport itself by storm. Every commentator had something to say to simultaneously champion his efforts putting them on the road to superstardom and vilify his off-court persona via his parenting technique, self-promotion, and hijinks. At times he became the bigger story and thus a big distraction to what the Williams sisters were building. Was he a coach? A cheerleader? A jester? All the above? Probably. But he was also a father—one who did everything possible to set his daughters up for victory against virtually insurmountable odds. Richard’s story is worth telling for that alone.

And that’s what we get from director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin‘s biographical drama King Richard. We get that victory. Such a hyper focus will inevitably mean context and complexity get left by the wayside (Williams’ identity is made synonymous with ensuring the five girls under his and second wife Oracene’s roof—the older three were hers from a previous marriage—excelled scholastically and athletically to the point where we don’t quite process the bombshell that he has other children he barely sees). Is losing those things okay because this isn’t about Richard Williams’ life? Is neglecting Venus and Serena’s perspective (both are executive producers) to make it about their father’s impact worth losing their crucial piece to this puzzle? Is the result a cop-out? Perhaps.

That’s the name of the game, though. When Hollywood seeks to tell an against-all-odds fairy tale, that’s exactly what it’s going to do no matter how sanitized or reductive the final product proves. And King Richard is very much both those things. What you then must do is step back and absorb it with open eyes as the vehicle for entertainment it was greenlit to become. Because it’s very much that too. We aren’t going to learn anything that anyone who has followed the Williams sisters’ trajectory doesn’t already know. The goal is to instead present that journey in a way that allows audiences to invest in the on-screen struggle and perseverance propelling them forward. It’s about humanizing a hero by blurring his flaws and augmenting his talent.

What better way to do so than casting Will Smith? No matter how good he is at transforming into real-life characters, his intrinsic Will Smith-ness shines through to ramp up the charisma and steal scenes regardless of their diminished believability with Richard Williams standing in his place. While that alone goes a long way towards rehabilitating the subject’s image, you can’t deny that the script’s penchant for inspirational words of wisdom helps immensely too. That’s Also where we see the line between fact and fiction disappear most, though. It’s when we begin understanding that, despite obviously operating with his own self-interest in mind, Williams recognized the cost of putting his daughters into this specific spotlight. That which made the potential reward huge also risked their destruction.

These girls weren’t just saddled with the pressure of their own success and the very transparent success of a family relying on them to pay their way into the future. They were being thrust into a situation that would automatically render them as heroes to women older than them. Two Black teenagers from Compton walking onto a Grand Slam court and excelling in ways the sport never saw before was an exploding bomb. The film’s very small window conveniently prevents it from touching on the racism they faced and the mental and psychological fortitude necessary to prevail despite it, but Richard is allowed a voice that anticipates that reality. He takes the white establishment to task every time it pretends Venus and Serena aren’t children who need protection.

That’s what makes centering the Williams sister’s origins on their father worthwhile. Did he inherently exploit them for personal gain? Sure. Joke or not, deciding to intentionally have two more children with the sole purpose of making them champions in a sport where their race and story could increase profits isn’t great. As this look behind the scenes of how he and Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) achieved that goal shows (their daughters had to buy in and want it for themselves too), however, his experiences as a Black man in America were crucial to shielding them from the high-pressure privilege machine wealthy white Americans have fed their children through for decades. Under the right circumstances, pressure can motivate rather than cripple. Williams had his dream, but fun came first.

Are those details ultimately watered down for comedic effect? Yes. But they also bolster that truth. Rather than leave Richard as the man with the controversial soundbites (“Tennis parents should be shot.”), we are able to see what he meant and agree. Saniyya Sidney‘s performance as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena help too, though, because we see the unwavering confidence they hold. Yes, they want to win. Yes, they push hard to position themselves for that victory. But their greatness didn’t come from ultimatums. It didn’t come from worrying they’ll let their parents down because of how much money was spent on getting to this point. Tennis was a reward for good grades. Tennis was the escape, not necessarily the answer. It was additive rather than subtractive.

And no matter how hard Richard pats himself on the back for having the “plan” to ensure that truth (Smith’s off-the-cuff praise about his daughters to strangers that chides them into taking note is fantastic), we see everyone else’s effort. His words as hype man/manager meant nothing to coaches he attempted hiring on a pro bono basis. It was only when Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal is great if a bit over-the-top in a non-heavy role for once) saw the girls play that they believed. Richard’s work was therefore no more valuable than Oracene’s (Ellis steals the show with a strength and power that cannot be ignored when she decides to let it out). They raised great kids who then became great players themselves.

One could say King Richard is ultimately about that specific revelation. It isn’t about Venus and Serena becoming professional tennis players or about the Williams family conning (negotiating) themselves out of Compton. It’s about Richard realizing he did enough and that it was time to trust that his daughters could do the rest. The education in life that he and Oracene gave them was enough to set them up for success whereas Jennifer Capriati couldn’t. But protection can become counterintuitive at a certain point and not recognizing it can be just as damaging as leaving them to the wolves too early. Anyone can play tennis and excel at it with money and coaches. What Venus and Serena got from their parents was the fortitude to be the best.

[1] Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved Photo Credit: Chiabella James Caption: (L-r) DEMI SINGLETON as Serena Williams, SANIYYA SIDNEY as Venus Williams and WILL SMITH as Richard Williams in Warner Bros. Pictures’ inspiring drama “KING RICHARD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) JON BERNTHAL as as Rick Macci and WILL SMITH as Richard Williams in Warner Bros. Pictures’ inspiring drama “KING RICHARD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Chiabella James Caption: (L-r) AUNJANUE ELLIS as Oracene “Brandy” Williams and WILL SMITH as Richard Williams in Warner Bros. Pictures’ inspiring drama “KING RICHARD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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