Critics are often the poets at the picnic, but even in the face of a film as sturdily made as King Richard, isn’t there an obvious problem about the optics of making a film about Venus and Serena Williams, and relegating the girls to supporting roles? If we were to imagine a film about two sporting brothers, would we choose to focus the narrative on their mother and make her the main character? That’s the obvious issue with King Richard; Richard Williams was the father of the Williams sisters, something of a hustler on their behalf judging by this evidence, yet somehow this story of female success is explained away as being due to the hard-work and vision of a man.
And since this is an endorsed product, you can’t expect much grit from a heavily sanitised version of the rise and rise of the Williams sisters. Their dad Richard (Will Smith) suffers to train them hard, and finds himself staring down the wrong end of a gun-barrel when he finds the girls gaining attention from local Compton gangs. But while his hustle is resistible to the tennis establishment, Richard Williams somehow knows better than everyone else, and manages to make the tough calls required, finding a way to propel his family to uncharted heights of tennis glory.
Kind Richard is something of a comeback for Smith, who certainly looks likely to pick up awards nominations for his strong performance here, even if it falls into the ‘Magical Negro’ trope that Key and Peele have ably satirised, specifically based on his performance in another sports movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance. And grievances aside, King Richard does tell a fairly compelling tale, particularly when Richard Williams ruffles the feathers of the white country-club know-it-alls he comes up against. It’s easy to get behind Richard Williams taking on The Man, but while the race card works here, the male-female balance is questionable; the Williams sisters barely seem to have any agency here, and just blithely accept whatever their father wants. We know they’ll succeed, the end justifies the means, and father always knows best are the key takeaways.
A 144 minute infomercial, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard feels like awards bait; Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith complained that his failure to be nominated (for 2015’s lamentable Concussion) is evidence of awards-system racism. King Richard may well rebalance that issue, but in 2021, surely we don’t need a male POV to understand female success.
Thanks to Warner Brothers UK for access to this film. King Richard is out in the UK and US from Nov 19th 2021.