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King Richard ★★★

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It’s Not About the Girls


The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, were in the balcony at the Oscars, hoping to celebrate, and be celebrated, if Will Smith won the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But “King Richard” isn’t about the 2 women. Of Richard’s 5 daughters, only 3—Venus, Serena, and the oldest, Tunde—are significant characters in this drama, and of these, only Venus has a major role.

The girls are told to kiss Daddy. "Who's your best friend?" he rhetorically asks them. Richard Williams center (Will Smith), Serena right (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) left.





The spectacular tennis-players-to-be, whose development is essential to the story, are nearly ciphers, objects rather than subjects, barely real people.

 

The spectacular tennis-players-to-be, whose development is essential to the story, are nearly ciphers, objects rather than subjects, barely real people. They never argue, whether with their parents, their coaches, or among themselves; they never rebel and never complain (even when hitting balls at night in a driving rain); they study hard and go to bed when told; they say “yes, Daddy” and “I love you Daddy” as if on cue.


Although Richard (and Director Reinaldo Marcus Green) would have us believe that the girls have agency, that their over-the-top self-confidence comes from within (“I want to win Wimbledon more times than anybody else,” says Venus at age 11), that it’s up to them to make the key decisions in their lives, none of it rings true. Are we supposed to believe that it’s 14-year-old Venus (Saniyya Sidney), deciding, on the spur of the moment, to reject a 3-million-dollar deal when she’s handed the multi-page contract to read, or that they’ve “chosen” the life course that their father has set out for them? One longs for some depth of personality in these young women, something akin to the determined Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya.”


Above, a scene NOT in the film, but reflective of the ineffective attempt to give anyone besides Richard agency. The entire family of young girls reading a contract a coach has handed them.


Nor is “King Richard” about two parents raising tennis champions. Richard’s wife, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams (Aunjanue Ellis), is a more fully developed character than her girls—a low bar. We learn early on in an off-hand comment that Mom and Dad are both “athletes” (as if parental genetic endowment was a decisive factor in the success of Venus and Serena). Brandy has one (only one) scene in which she functions as a tennis instructor, and she will later claim that she, and not Richard, fixed Venus’s serve and came up with the idea of the “open stance.” Still, she’s given limited screen time and has a decidedly motherly presence, dispensing advice like “remember where you came from” (Compton, the ghetto, the black experience), braiding Venus’s hair into those iconic white beads while teaching the girls about Sojourner Truth. When there are major decisions to be made, she’s silent.


The film’s concluding scenes are there to give the production the familiar Hollywood touch. As in this one, where you'll be ready to applaud. (From left, Will Smith as Richard Williams, Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams, and Demi Singleton as Serena Williams.)


The film’s concluding scenes—a very long one of Venus playing an important match against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Richard’s heart-to-heart with the younger Serena (Demi Singleton), who simply nods, and a requisite crowd/fans applause scene—are there to give the production the familiar Hollywood touch and to confirm that the film we’ve been watching is really about the improbable rise of the Williams sisters.


The film is a psychological study of Richard Williams (Will Smith), an anti-authoritarian, authoritarian presence straight out of today’s populist moment, reminiscent of Trump and Elon Musk.


Right, Williams with his "motivational" signs, including one referencing his 78-page plan for his daughters: "IF YOU FAIL TO PLAN, YOU PLAN TO FAIL."



It isn’t. It’s a psychological study of Richard Williams (and now, after the “slap,” of Will Smith), an anti-authoritarian, authoritarian presence straight out of today’s populist moment, reminiscent of Trump, and Elon Musk, and Putin, and Erdogan, and the UK’s Johnson, and Brazil’s Bolsonaro. Like these men, Williams suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect: over-confident people actually know less than others, and certainly less than they think they do. Williams believes he’s the smartest person in the room or, for that matter, on the tennis court. It’s no accident that the “King Richard” title invokes Shakespeare’s flawed, and failing, protagonists. Williams is manipulative, stubborn to a fault, thin-skinned, contentious, and over-bearing (“I call the shots”; “I wrote the plan”).


Brandy rarely confronts her husband's authoritarian ways. Right, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) and Richard Williams (Will Smith).


Williams is also “straight outta Compton,” with a black chip on his shoulder, navigating and sparring, often reasonably, sometimes gratuitously, with the white world of tennis and the even whiter world of elite tennis clubs and academies (whose whiteness is given too light a touch in the film). There’s some, not much, recognition of where that chip comes from when Richard and Brandy watch the Rodney King beating on TV, evoking George Floyd and the dangers of being black in America. The riots that ensued in LA after the King beating are mysteriously omitted, the dangers of living in Compton not shown vividly enough.


Richard can come across as a savvy, wise, protective, thoughtful and understanding parent. He says he wants his children to “be kids,” to think for themselves, to be well-rounded and educated. Concerned that Venus and Serena will suffer from competitive burnout (Jennifer Capriati is the film’s poster child for that result), he refuses to allow them to play junior tournaments—a controversial and unusual decision.


Smith's character (left, showing Richard Williams in a rare reflective moment) as written lacks the inner drama that characterizes the vacillating “hero” of Asghar Farhadi’s "A Hero."






This ambivalence of character might be described as complexity. Or as a Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon, 2 sides of a divided, unstable, personality. An angry Brandy offers her perspective in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, accusing Richard of being insecure. “Unlike you,” she says, “I don’t need the world to tell me I’m great. You’re just scared.” Cheap psychology? Or truth-telling? Although Smith gives a powerful and passionate performance, complete with Louisiana accent and the exuberant arrogance of a tyrant, his character as written lacks the inner drama that characterizes the vacillating “hero” of Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero.”


There’s another aspect to the film that underscores Richard’s single-minded commitment to his own ideas. He’s convinced that his “plan,” drawn up after he learns a tennis player has made a million dollars and when his daughters are not yet in grade school, will make Venus and Serena into champions. And that is, of course, what they become, and so it seems only right to credit Richard, his “plan” and his persona, for their extraordinary tennis careers.

 

The Williams sisters’ success never could have been predicted or produced by any plan, any coach, or any one person, including Richard Williams.

 

That conclusion, as compelling as it seems, is wrong, a perfect example of post hoc ergo propter hoc. The Williams sisters’ success never could have been predicted or produced by any plan, any coach, or any one person, including Richard Williams. By effacing the role of the sisters, and their mother, and their coaches, “King Richard” simplifies what should be complex: the ingredients of every extraordinary achievement. It turns the saga of the Williams sisters—a matter of unbelievably hard work, coaching, their own personal strength (and yes, Richard Williams’ 78-page plan), but also fate and fortune—into an inspiring story about what one deeply flawed man can do.

 

Date: 2021

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Jon Bernthal

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Will Smith), won; Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Aunjanue Ellis), Best Achievement in Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song

Other Awards: 44 other wins, and 126 other nominations

Runtime: 144 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

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