Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Premise: Based on true events. In 1990s Compton, Richard Williams (Will Smith) raises his daughters Venus and Serena Williams (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) and coaches them to become tennis stars.
What Works: King Richard dramatizes the rise of Venus and Serena Williams to sports stardom but this movie is primarily the story of their father Richard. As presented in the film, Richard Williams devised a business plan for his daughters that would take them to professional tennis. But despite its focus on Richard Williams and despite the fact that both Venus and Serena Williams are credited as executive producers on the movie, the filmmakers mostly avoid turning King Richard into a hagiography. The movie does soften some of the rougher details of Richard Williams’ life and parenting choices but he’s a fully realized and complicated character. He makes mistakes, is short tempered and stubborn, and dominates the lives of his children. But he also loves them and his focus and choices do ultimately bear fruit. This is a movie about the difficulty of being a parent and specifically a black parent in an impoverished and crime ridden neighborhood. Without soapboxing, King Richard is a fiery call for hands-on parenting. These children are raised into greatness by the support and demands of their parents. In that respect, King Richard makes an interesting companion piece with The Pursuit of Happyness. Both films are about fathers raising their children in difficult circumstances and each picture is a Horatio Alger story but with a social conscience. Beyond suggesting that the poor pick themselves up by their bootstraps, The Pursuit of Happyness and King Richard point to social frameworks—the social safety net in the former, the family in the latter—that allow people to succeed. Both films also feature Will Smith giving some of his best performances; Smith disappears into the role of Richard Williams in a way that he rarely has throughout his career.
What Doesn’t: King Richard centers upon Richard Williams’ plan for daughters Venus and Serena but the daughters are not really characters. There is a strange tension in the story. At several points, coaches and media figures ask Venus and Serena what it is that they want; the filmmakers attempt to give these young women a voice and make clear that the dream of tennis stardom is as much theirs as it is their parent’s desire. But it doesn’t come off that way. As characters, Venus and Serena are empty. They don’t have any interests outside of tennis and they rarely do anything except what they are told and most of their dialogue consists of repeating their father’s platitudes. There is also no getting around the fact that King Richard is a movie suggesting professional sports as a way out of poverty. As dramatized in the film, Richard Williams was vindicated by his daughters’ success but the implicit message is ethically questionable.
Bottom Line: King Richard is a satisfying sports drama. Its depiction of Venus and Serena Williams is curiously vacant but the film’s portrait of their father is a complex character study.
Episode: #881 (December 5, 2021)