Reinaldo Marcus Green gets the best out of Will Smith in this biopic of Venus and Serena Williams’ father and coach.
There’s a difficult balance to strike in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard. The accomplishments of many a prodigy – from Andre Agassi to Tonya Harding to Mozart – have been partially attributed to parental ambition. But, from the outset, a film centring the accomplishments of two of the greatest sports women who have ever lived on their father makes for an uneasy proposition.
It also has to escape the shadow of a brazen Oscar bid from its star Will Smith, whose open ambition to secure a statuette has garnered nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, but his trophy cabinet remains empty. Inspiring biopics seem the safe path to silverware, and some of the moments in this film do seem pre-edited as an awards clip. So, it’s cheering to say King Richard rises above all that to offer a well-conceived tribute to Black parenting, family and spirit.
Fans of the Williams sisters will already have a sense of who their father Richard is – fiercely protective of his daughters and an outspoken courtside presence who, early in their careers, gained almost as much attention as they did. Here we meet him long before the headlines, at a white country club peddling a 78-page plan for future success. The goal is to turn his kids into superstars: he sees this tennis thing as being a “pretty good racket.”
The pristine lawns of the club contrast with the scuzzy Compton courts his daughters practice on, but Richard and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) want great things for their family and are determined to make it work. Watching young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) practice on cracked concrete in the rain, it seems absurd to consider what the future holds. Yet this absurdity is what provides the film’s interesting ideas about the way ambition and passion can be weaponised against marginalised people.
Virtually every conversation Richard has about his daughters with a white person is peppered with micro-aggressions, which can be seen as the beginning of the bad faith lens through which the Williams sisters every display of determination or emotion continues to be interpreted. While not all Black families are “asking someone to believe you have the next two Mozarts living in your house,” the film effectively speaks to widespread obstacles for Black parents trying to provide better lives for their children.
Where the film occasionally creaks is when the dialogue gets heavy with intersectional feminism, and you can see characters almost winking to the future. Director Green may get the best out of Smith, and his directorial style is, in general, very robust, yet his hyper-competence occasionally works to the detriment of the film, feeling cautious and out of step with the bold ambition of hi subjects.
Unlike in Smith’s decent but saccharine American Dream movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, the star doesn’t just rely on his charisma to sell Richard. Absorbing some of his eccentricities and volatility is what keeps him plausibly savvy enough to avoid predatory contractual clauses, and warm enough to preserve some childhood joy for his daughters. Many of the beats of their inspirational rise feel familiar, but the film avoids pitfalls simply based on the unprecedented nature of Venus and Serena’s ascent.
Published 19 Nov 2021
A film about two women that’s really about a man. Groan.
If you are going to make a sports family portrait, this is probably the one to go for.
Richard Williams wants tennis superstars. Will Smith wants an Oscar. Both yield good results.