Aw, crap. Another self-important “so good it’s bad” Oscar-bait drama that doesn’t do anything wrong enough to be considered a bad movie, but doesn’t do anything well enough or unique enough to make it distinct. A film that perfectly follows every established tried-and-true playbook, designed to last exactly up until the Academy Awards and not a day later.

I know these prayers will fall on deaf ears, but please gods, spare me from reviewing another one of these.

King Richard stars Will Smith as the namesake Richard Williams, father of the two young girls who grow up to be Venus and Serena Williams (respectively played by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton). To repeat, we’ve got a biopic about Venus and Serena Williams — arguably the two greatest feminist icons in all of sports history — except the movie is centered around their father. You can see the problem we’ve got right off the bat, right?

To be entirely clear, the Williams Sisters started out famously young, as Venus and Serena went pro at ages 14 and 16 respectively. Of course it makes sense that their father would factor heavily into the story of how they got started. I’m sure there’s a fantastic coming-of-age story to be told about the two girls coping with their own doubts, their sibling rivalry, pressure from their father, and everything else they had to overcome in their prodigious rise from the violent streets of Compton to the highest peaks of professional tennis.

But that’s not what we’ve got here.

Instead, the film goes into exhaustive detail about Richard Williams’ obsessive drive to mold his daughters into professional tennis players. The man purportedly had his kids’ entire lives mapped out in a 78-page plan before they were even born. He will literally spend all day, every day, lying and stealing and begging and borrowing and literally working himself to death promoting his kids and getting them what they need to achieve fame and fortune.

Except wouldn’t you know it, Richard thinks he knows better than the professionals because these are his girls and he’s spent his entire life planning all this out. He thinks that obsessively reading every book and magazine he can get his hands on, spending untold hours in a run-down public park playing tennis with his kids, makes him more of an expert than the old rich white men who’ve made this their career.

In other words, there’s every possibility that Richard is using his children as pawns to build up his own ego.

On the other hand, the fact remains that the world has never really seen anything like Venus or Serena Williams. No tennis star with this degree of talent ever came up from literally nothing like the Williams Sisters did. So there is indeed a possibility that the old ways might not work for them and Richard really does have no idea what he’s doing. More importantly, the Williamses are inherently skeptical of the rich old white people who suddenly come knocking at the door, offering the moon and stars when they wouldn’t even have given Richard the time of day a month prior.

It bears remembering that Richard came up in Louisiana during a time before the Civil Rights Movement, back when the KKK and Jim Crow were in their prime. And now he’s living in the LA area, taking punches from cops and gang-bangers so his kids don’t have to. (The Rodney King Incident is right around the corner, by the way.)

Richard is absolutely desperate to get his family out of all that. But then he finally gets Venus into some tournaments, and the filmmakers are explicitly clear in lingering on all the young women whom Venus eliminates from contention. He sees firsthand how these kids are utterly devastated from losing. He sees the other parents who push their kids just as hard as Richard pushes his. Even worse, Venus is often compared to Jennifer Capriati (here immortalized by Jessica Wacnik), frequently positioned to follow in the path blazed by the elder tennis prodigy. But then Capriati got arrested in 1994, and Richard pumped the brakes hard enough to damn near end Venus and Serena’s careers altogether.

The bottom line is that for all of Richard’s big talk, he’s still just a black man who came up from the ghetto. He talks a big game about making a plan and seeing it through, but he’s spent his whole life living from hand to mouth and reacting to the most immediate threat in front of him, and that’s exactly what he does all through the picture because that’s all he knows how to do. He constantly asks for everyone to give him everything for free (because of course the family is too poor to pay for coaching, equipment, training, etc.), arguing that his kids are good enough to justify the expense; yet when anything good comes his way for free, he gets paranoid and turns it away out of hand. He wants the best coaches for his daughters, yet contradicts them at every turn while insisting that he knows more and knows better than they do. He wants fame and fortune for his daughters, but only while he’s there to control the limelight.

Folks, we all know this story. We’ve seen this story. The Stephen Sondheim musical “Gypsy” is still probably the most famous archetypal example of this particular plot, but Honey Boy is another and more recent instance. I could also point to The Glass Castle and Captain Fantastic as other examples of movies about parents with delusions of grandeur, potentially ruining their kids by raising them to impossible standards.

Bad enough that this movie follows the established playbook without adding much of anything new. Yes, this movie brings up the angle of racial inequality. Yes, it’s sobering to consider how many other geniuses and prodigies fell through the cracks because we don’t have enough institutions willing to give them the time or resources to flourish. But we could’ve had all of that in a movie that followed the correct protagonist.

It seriously pisses me off that when Jennifer Capriati burned out, Richard Williams’ reaction is shown in extreme close-up while reactions from Venus and Serena go completely unexplored. We never learn how Venus feels when Richard fired her first tennis coach (Paul Cohen, played by Tony Goldwyn) for no good reason at all. When Richard acts erratic and he argues with his wife (Brandy, played by Aunjanue Ellis), the kids’ reaction is only ever shown in the background, if that.

I’m sorry, maybe it’s just me, and I say this with all due respect to the hard work that Will Smith put into acting his ass off, but it’s hard for me to care about Richard Williams when his daughters are right there. These are world-famous celebrities, quite possibly the greatest tennis players of all time, their “rags to riches” story is genuinely compelling, and even their father would be the first one to loudly admit that everything he does only matters to the extent that it helps his daughters. So why in the nine hells is Richard the namesake protagonist here?!

Of course I’m aware that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith exec-produced this picture (the actual Williams Sisters themselves are also credited as exec producers, by the way), and that must have been a factor. But it honestly makes me even more pissed off that we had two genuinely compelling figures played by two young actors more than capable of anchoring their own movie, and all of that was pushed aside to make this into a Will Smith vehicle.

It even damages the film on a thematic level. The film pays a lot of lip service to the Williams Sisters’ status as role models and inspirations for other young girls and people of color growing up in poverty. That message comes off as more than a little trite when the sisters themselves are relegated to supporting player status in their own goddamn movie.

On a final miscellaneous note, I must give fair praise to the supporting cast here. Aunjanue Ellis, Tony Goldwyn, and Jon Bernthal all hold the screen admirably against Smith. I’m especially happy to see Bernthal acting against type here — it always pleases me to see him play something other than a grizzled hardass action type and Bernthal doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition for his versatility as an actor.

Alas, I can’t review the film we didn’t get, I can only review the film that actually got made. Which is a damn shame, because the King Richard we got is so bland and by-the-numbers that it’s almost beyond description. It’s too long at 138 minutes, it’s too uninspired to do the subject any justice, and it’s too unremarkable to justify its own existence in such a massively overcrowded holiday season.

Unless the film somehow picks up any kind of concrete Oscar recognition, nobody will remember this film in another six months. Seriously, Academy voters and aspiring Oscar winners, please try harder than this.

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3 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: King Richard

  1. It DOES seem strange doing a movie focusing more on Venus and Serena Williams’ father than the Williams sisters themselves. While the idea DOES have merit, really the spotlight shouldn’t be taken away from Venus and Serena in the way you describe.
    And yes, the whole ‘stage parent’ thing has been done before, and better, in both films based on true stories and in fiction.

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