King Richard

King Richard, 2021, 3 ½ stars

Will Smith is King (Richard)

Image copyright Warner Brothers

Exclusive to MeierMovies, November 18, 2021

Consistent, prolonged success (like that achieved by Venus and Serena Williams) often breeds complacency, even boredom, among spectators. We often need Hollywood to remind us how extraordinary and unique such a story is.

King Richard – for all the flaws of both the film and the man – is that reminder. Though the new biopic by director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) occasionally compromises its integrity by becoming a cheerleader for the tennis phenoms rather than an objective storyteller, there’s no denying its emotional power. There’s also no denying Will Smith’s continually improving position among the pantheon of great actors.

Smith plays the eponymous Richard Williams, who, until he engineered the remarkable rise to fame of his daughters, was the king of nothing.

“The world never had no respect for Richard Williams,” he tells his daughters. “But they’re gonna respect ya’ll.”

Turns out, after Green’s film, the world will also respect Richard, or at least the cinematic version, which received the blessings of the family. (Venus and Serena are executive producers.) Still, Zach Baylin’s script, which tells the story of the sisters’ early years under the tutelage of their father, sticks close to reality, fudging only timelines, private conversations and minor details. Serena gets a bit ignored except for a nice father-daughter moment late in the film, but considering the fact that Venus matured earlier, that’s an understandable choice in order to limit the already bloated 138-minute runtime.

Green’s handling of race can sometimes seem heavy-handed, with scenes at the almost all-white tennis clubs appearing more reminiscent of the 1950s than the 1990s. (Have we forgotten Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe so soon?) Nevertheless, I have no reason to doubt their integrity, especially considering the fact that the Williams sisters turned heads not just for their race but for their Compton upbringing. It was Richard, after all, who emphasized the racial barriers his daughters were breaking, referring to them as “ghetto Cinderella: ghettorella.” And it was he who admitted, because of his violent upbringing in Louisiana, “I had a war against the white race.”

Some critics speculate that King Richard might garner an Oscar nomination for best film. I’m not sure I buy that, as 2021 will certainly end up producing a dozen or more better movies. I’m also not yet cynical enough to believe that Academy voters will crown King simply because it “checks all the boxes” on the issue of race. But as far as a nomination for Smith, it’s game, set, match.

Also serving aces is Aunjanue Ellis, as Venus and Serena’s mother, Brandy. The young Saniyya Sidney is similarly remarkable as Venus, as are the scenes of her (or her double) playing tennis. (Kudos to veteran cinematographer and Oscar winner Robert Elswit and the film’s special-effects crew.) Though the script overemphasizes one contest early in Venus’s career against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, the match is a thing of beauty.

While the film spends too much time on that match, it allocates too little to Richard’s backstory. The filmmakers made the choice to name their movie for him and not the sisters, which some critics have branded an odd move. The finished product, however, strikes a nice balance between Richard and his daughters – almost too nice, as I longed to know more about him. In addition, Richard and Brandy’s complicated relationship – they both have children from other marriages – is either glossed over or mishandled, while Richard’s knack of attracting (and encouraging) odd publicity is placed in a mostly positive context.

As Richard told his wife, “We’ve just got to stick to the plan.” Despite the Hollywoodizing of that plan, there’s little doubt it was developed out of love and was more successful than even Richard dreamed.

© 2021 MeierMovies, LLC

For more information on the movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia.