Tuesday, November 29, 2022

‘King Richard’ Review: Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis Inspire as Venus and Serena Williams’ Eye-on-the-Prize Parents

The vast majority of sports movies are about exceptional talent. “King Richard” is about exceptional belief: the conviction of one man, Richard Williams, to turn his daughters Venus and Serena into the world’s greatest tennis players. It’s a plan he hatched even before the girls were born — together with wife/queen Brandi — and put down in a 78-page manifesto, nearly all of which has come true (or so the film informs us over the end credits). Hindsight makes this a story worth telling. At the time, everyone thought he was crazy. “It’s like asking someone to believe you have the next two Mozarts living in your house,” says one coach, passing up the opportunity of a lifetime.

Featuring a grizzled and nearly unrecognizable Will Smith in the title role, “Monsters and Men” director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” is a good, old-fashioned Horatio Alger story for our time, detailing how a Black kid who grew up “running from the Klan” in Shreveport, La., set his mind to a goal and made it happen. He may have raised his five daughters in Compton — “ghetto Cinderellas,” in the character’s words — but through hard work and dedication, they achieved the American dream (to the tune of five Wimbledon titles and a $12 million contract).

That’s the reductive version of the Williams family story and the one everyone knows (even this critic, who’s never watched a pro tennis match in his life). But playing spectator to Venus’ success — while Serena readies herself in her sister’s shadow — is hardly the reason to seek out a two-and-a-half-hour biopic, especially when we know the outcome going in. The attraction here is discovering where the family came from, what they overcame and how Richard’s master plan played out in practice. And the beauty of Zach Baylin’s script is that hardly a single detail could be described as clichéd, since nothing quite like it has ever happened before.

Richard takes umbrage at a certain point when a pair of sports agents show up angling to represent Venus. They keep referring to her story as “incredible” (which it is), though Richard interprets that choice of words as a coded slight against their race (which it is, too), explaining to these white guys that the lack of diversity in tennis was the specific reason he targeted that particular mountain for his daughters to climb. Later, when Venus thinks she’s ready to compete, he reminds her of the responsibility that she carries onto the court, as her future accomplishments will expand the potential of Black girls everywhere.

Sure enough, Venus and Serena Williams have become examples to millions of Americans, and this movie exists for their benefit and all those whom their story has not yet reached. This is inspirational filmmaking at its most effective, in part because it frames the family’s achievement as a matter of commitment above all, suggesting that practically anyone could do the same if they set their minds to it. Personally, having known a couple athletes who snapped after being driven to extremes by similarly single-minded parents, I wouldn’t recommend Richard Williams’ approach, but that’s not what “King Richard” is selling. (“Saint Richard” might have been a more appropriate title, even if the movie acknowledges his infidelity and other failings.)

Green shows the man coaching his daughters on the dilapidated Compton public tennis courts, rain or shine, under the watchful eye of local gangbangers. When a neighbor calls the police on them for being too hard on their kids, both Richard and Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis, the movie’s secret weapon) stand up and explain that they have to be tough, since “running the streets” is simply not an acceptable alternative. That’s the essence of the Horatio Alger formula: Effort and virtue are invariably rewarded. No one wants to hear the stories of all the other tennis parents Richard dismisses, grumbling that they ought to be shot.

But just as Americans like to see hard work rewarded, they are creeped out by the idea of stage parents — from the Jonbenet Ramsay phenomenon to “tiger moms” who drive their kids toward a predetermined career path. It’s not always clear what sets Richard apart from such obsessive personalities, other than his repeated insistence that he wants Venus and Serena to “have fun” at the sport and the later choice to pull them out of junior tournaments after Jennifer Capriati (who broke all sorts of youngest-ever records) was arrested with marijuana in a Florida hotel room.

Richard offers his girls both pressure and protection, willing to get beaten up on behalf of his daughters, if necessary. In one unexpected scene, he takes the gun from his security job and plans to shoot the thug who’s been harassing his daughter, but fate has other plans. Green isn’t afraid to show the Williams family praying or putting their faith in a higher power (an important dimension of so many Americans’ lives seldom depicted in studio movies). Nor is he shy about acknowledging the countless prejudices working against them, whether personal or systemic (as when Brandi reacts to the Rodney King beating: “At least they got them on tape this time”).

Impressive as Smith is as the scruffy, slightly stoop-shouldered Richard — channeling the actor’s natural charisma into a kind of stubborn yet supportive focus — the movie offers him a formidable equal in Ellis, who plays his wife. Publicly, Brandi lets Richard call the shots, but in private (where the movie’s most impactful scenes take place), she’s not afraid to remind him that the Williams family project is a group effort.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are both strong in their respective roles as young Venus and Serena, handling both the dramatic and athletic dimensions of those characters across a span of approximately three years. And Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal merit mention as Paul Cohen and Rick Macci, the coaches who agreed to take them on, despite their unconventional background — not so much Compton as the fact of being trained by a hands-on dad who inserted himself into the process.

Judging by the success of Smith’s own superstar kids, Jaden and Willow, the subject is hardly an unfamiliar one, even if the actor’s approach to their careers is far different from his character’s. Even so, the Smith family and the Williamses share something in common in a country where white men hold disproportionate control over the gates of entry. By developing talent that can make others filthy-rich, they wrest the power to their side of the bargaining table. And that’s what “King Richard” is ultimately about: It’s a how-to guide on setting up and following through on one’s shot.


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