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King Richard

***
2021

‘…while the race card works here, the male-female balance is questionable…’

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.

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  1. You bring up something I thought the moment I saw the trailer. Instead of thinking about whether or not I wanted to see the film, my mind immediately went to, “a film granting the phenomenal success of two black women to a man?! Twitter is going to have a field day with this!”

    Which is not to say I won’t watch it and enjoy it. I’m sort of on the fence with this one…back in the days when I went to the movies every Tuesday night and the streaming options weren’t endless, there’s no question I would’ve caught this one. Now I’m not sure…movies don’t just “fall into my lap” anymore…I’ve gotta seek them out. I’m not sure that this one will ever make it to the top of my pile. But maybe!

    I guess I’m more than a little ambivalent!

    • It’s a decent enough film, and as you say, in more hospitable times, worth a look. But it’s a bit shallow and lacking in detail about why this guy knew better than everyone else what to do in terms of training. In this version, it’s a triumph of men knowing best what’s good for women, which is not a great look in 2021…

  2. I have to admit I am surprised by your negativity about making the father the main character. First off, I think the title of the movie kind of gives it away, but second, and more important, a black father who is actively involved in his childrens’ lives is something we should be all rooting for. I don’t know how it is in the UK, but here in the US the stats are really horrible about black fathers and their families (something like a 90% absentee rate).

    I still won’t be watching this. Not a fan of older Smith. I liked his early stuff, but as he’s gotten older I just don’t like the stuff he’s done. I don’t know if it’s him as an actor or the roles he’s chosen. But nope!

    • I hear you, and while researching this story, I found that Richard Williams was quite a negatively characterised figure in the US press, and I can totally see why the Williams sisters would want to try and balance that with a positive portrayal here. And as I noted, I did find I could root for him as an outsider to a white-controlled tennis establishment. But the stats you quote are not something that the film deals with or mentions; there’s a lack of conflict while lets the air out of the balloon in terms of drama. This film is a bit like The Pursuit of Happyness, another Smith film in which an outsider cracks the American dream by hard work. But it’s not really clear in this film why Richard is so much smarter than everyone else he encounters, and that makes it feel like a hagiography.

    • I wasn’t confident going in, but it’s a surprisingly engrossing film; as you say, a good Sunday afternoon watch…

  3. Trying to think of a movie I have less chance of ever seeing and I’m coming up with nothing. Celebrity brand promotion in the shape of a 144 minute biopic? No thanks.

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