“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s that time of year – for glittery, intensely serious dramas to flex their human-experience muscles for would-be awards voters. In King Richard, the biopic about the enigmatic father of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams, it is not just a play for Oscar noms. It is also a showcase for superstar Will Smith to (perhaps) get the win he’s waited his entire career for. However, in a somewhat unexpected turn of events, Smith’s awards campaign is going to have to combat the danger of being swallowed up by bigger controversies concerning his film’s title character.
The film begins with a middle-aged Richard Williams (Smith), a desperately devoted father who scrounges up tennis supplies while annoying the guests of a local Country Club. He just won’t shut up about his two young daughters, Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton), whom he is convinced are both destined to be future tennis pros. However, to everyone else, it sounds like a pipe dream. One of the white country club members even remarks that Richard should consider basketball instead.
Even in his own neighborhood, free from upper-class snickers, Richard remains a pariah. A neighbor from across the street threatens to call social services on him for fear that he’s overworking his children. Local gang members sexually harass his daughter Yetunde (Mikaela LaShae Bartholomew), scoffing at Richard’s request to leave the underaged girl alone. His wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), feels underappreciated and without an equal say in how their five young daughters are being raised. Through it all, Richard rarely budges, remaining almost entirely the same man through the one hundred forty minutes of a whirlwind journey to prove to the world that Richard Williams does in fact know what the hell he’s talking about.
“This world ain’t ever had no respect for Richard Williams, but they gone respect y’all,” he tells his girls. His motivations to turn Venus and Serena into pro athletes consist of multitudes. On the one hand, he is a devoted father who would do anything to not see his children wind up as deadbeats on the streets. On the other hand, Richard, who says he learned to play tennis from a man named ‘Old Whiskey’, confirms he became interested in the sport when he found out just how much money the players made. Before his two young prodigies were born, he wrote a 78-page manifesto detailing his plan to turn them into pros. A rather extreme endeavor if you supposedly only have the purest of intentions. Whether Venus and Serena had much of a choice in picking tennis as their devoted hobby comes down to how much money and personal glory influenced Richard’s goals. By his own words, he’s never enjoyed respect and admiration from his community or the world. He wants that for his children – but he also wants it for himself.
Will Smith turns in a committed and risky performance, embodying a figure whose messy flaws could easily conflict with the wholesome image Smith has built for the past thirty years. Or, perhaps, King Richard is a complicated story that comes at a perfectly complicated time in the A-lister’s life – because the Fresh Prince isn’t really as clean-cut as his brand portends. Between a rumored open marriage, various entanglements, and a new memoir where Smith revealed he once had desires to murder his domestically abusive father, Will is way more layered than the leading man who lays down clean raps and smiles for the camera to hide his many emotional scars. Perhaps he, better than anyone, understands the complicated morality at play when attempting to lionize a contentious figure such as Richard Williams. But does the movie understand that?
Richard’s early attempts to get his daughters’ professional training is full of trial and error. Until finally, he’s able to convince renowned coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) to train the older Venus. Venus’ dominant progression sees her tear through several Junior tournaments while lighting a fire under a jealous and smoldering Serena. Venus and Serena don’t seem to have much trouble kicking ass on the courts. Therefore, the drama comes almost entirely from rather or not Richard will pull the trigger on having the girls go pro sooner than expected, which would alter his long-term plans (which is somehow meticulously crafted while simultaneously confusing and sporadic).
King Richard is a complex watch, alternating between a feel-good Disney movie, and an edgier drama that confronts a lot of issues underneath the surface, which may be the exact dynamic Warner Bros was going for. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green is at home when showcasing the movie’s cheery side, such as when the five sisters sing, dance, laugh, and crack jokes on each other or on Venus’ various (tennis) victims. However, the movie seems a bit afraid of those rougher edges. Venus and Serena were both producers on the project, so naturally, the movie is colored by their perspective. That means that parts of the story are left out – namely that Richard fathered a family prior to his marriage to Oracene, a family he abandoned and left in poverty. This event is only briefly referenced in the movie, then quickly forgotten.
Recently, there was an outcry that Warner Bros even had the audacity to name the Venus/Serena biopic after a man. Except, this isn’t their biopic, it’s their father’s and it’s likely what the sisters wanted. Thankfully, this mini-controversy was quickly extinguished by much of the film’s black audience, who maintained that we shouldn’t tear down a positive portrayal of an African American family. To decry the movie’s centering on Richard is to imply he doesn’t have a story worth telling – he absolutely does, but it’s also in reason to desire a more complete picture. That includes the family he left in the cold because to fully appreciate the heights that Richard achieved as a father, we must also confront his transgressions. The truth isn’t always pretty, but it is always illuminating.
Somewhat near the end of the movie, a touching scene depicts Oracene assuring her two young daughters that they come from a rich history of people, and with the knowledge of that, the two should stand tall and proud when they go out into the world. “Remember who you are, where you came from,” she urges. That includes the unflattering sides of history as well. King Richard holds its lead character in high esteem, an ordained prophet who gifted the world not one, but two sports phenoms. The movie is aware he’s not perfect, but that’s not what the movie is about. The movie is about the fact that he was right, even as everyone told him he was crazy. It’s treated as a redemption story for black fathers who were chastised for having “too much” faith in their children; Lavar Ball probably had a Richard Williams poster on his bedroom wall.
The film, despite its flawed relationship with reality, is entertaining and engaging throughout. It’s a worthy vehicle for Smith, while also never feeling like he’s carrying too much of the load. It’s a fun, engaged, energetic cast who all bring their A-game to a story that has long since been worth telling. Perhaps, one day, Venus and Serena will get their Last Dance like documentary that acts as the true biopic for their careers. Perhaps Will Smith will get his Academy Award. But those are all formalities for globally famous figures who have already put in the work to ensure the immortality of their legacies. I don’t need an Academy Award to validate Will Smith’s career, or to tell me he’s great in this movie. That’s all window dressing for a complicated man portraying an even more complicated figure. It’s the flaws, the lapses in judgment, the mistakes, the contradictions, that give triumph greater context and help us understand Richard Williams and Will Smith. It’s the journey, not a statue, that tells us where we’ve come from.