‘King Richard’ turns a doubles tennis victory into a singles story

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 11/23/21

Normally, relegating Venus and Serena Williams to supporting characters in their own origin story would be just cause for branding “King Richard” as parochial, if not outright misogynistic — it …

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‘King Richard’ turns a doubles tennis victory into a singles story

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Posted

Normally, relegating Venus and Serena Williams to supporting characters in their own origin story would be just cause for branding “King Richard” as parochial, if not outright misogynistic — it is certainly the former.

But the story of the Williams sisters is also necessarily the story of their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith). Reared in Jim Crow Louisiana, Richard relocated to California, where he eventually found three wives and at least 10 children. Venus and Serena were his two children with his second wife, Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis). After working as a night-shift security guard, Richard spends his days implementing the 78-page plan he concocts for Venus and Serena to turn them into unlikely tennis superstars.

The madness of “King Richard” sits alongside his results-based genius. Richard defies the mean streets of his family’s Compton environs, a place that is not only unsafe but also imposes a ceiling on success. When the gangs are not actually threatening Richard’s life, his dowdy neighbor is calling child protective services because Richard is working his children harder than her or anyone else in the hood. Richard’s greatest achievement, both in life and the film, is his dogmatic, almost messianic zeal to not only elevate his daughters outta Compton, but to turn two Black girls into tennis legends.

The retort to any criticism of Richard’s methods is the proverbial cry of “Scoreboard!” Indeed, “King Richard’s” overarching theme is that the ends justify his means. However, that’s where the film and its perspective grow more complicated.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin portray a Richard Williams who runs drills in downpours, constantly interferes with his girls’ training (especially his unending demand for Venus to keep an open hitting stance), and begs for free coaching only to arbitrarily dispatch those coaches for seemingly minor slights. He pulls his daughters out of competing in juniors tennis — where they dominate — because he does not want Venus and Serena to burn out early or become contaminated by the elitist white culture. He rejects lucrative agent and sponsorship deals, preferring for his girls to first prove then demand what they are worth.

It all works out because, well, it all worked out. What goes unanswered and unknowable is whether Venus and Serena achieved their greatness despite and not totally because of Richard’s mercurial meddling. At so many junctures along Venus and Serena’s early career path, people like their fervently optimistic coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) tolerate Richard’s shenanigans only due to the prodigious talent and promise of his daughters. The film hints at the uneasy marriage between Richard and Oracene, with Richard treating it as a patriarchy and Oracene as a partnership. Indeed, the two would divorce in 2002, roughly eight years after the film’s climax, presumably because Oracene realized that Richard’s laudable efforts had run their course and what remained were just his desperate demands for respect and credit. “King Richard” ultimately plays out as another ploy in that plan.

Many of Richard’s rough edges are softened by the actor playing him. For all the tumult in own personal life, Will Smith can be a terrific actor, and here he acutely conveys Richard’s corn-pone wisdom, earnest passion and obsessive stubbornness. Smith lacquers a patina of roguish charm onto another otherwise rather unlikeable person. The tale of how the Williams sisters transcend their upbringing, especially to excel in this particular sport, is one worthy of exaltation and explication, and Richard Williams is the central future in that story. But “King Richard” also opts to laud his apparent achievements without any meaningful critique of his methods.

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