There are few genres as overwhelmingly popular as the feel-good sports drama. One can trace the history all the way back to Ronald Reagan’s most celebrated role in Knute Rockne: All American, and follow it through to modern history, with The Blind Side earning a Best Picture nomination and an entire generation being convinced that Remember The Titans is high art (relax, millennials, it’s still a good movie). And with few athletes in all of sports history being as talented or as inspirational as the Williams sisters, the most rewarded athletes in any sport in history, it makes sense that a biopic about their upbringing under their controversial father and coach, Richard Williams, should make waves. Especially if such a film has the weight of beloved actor Will Smith behind it. So is King Richard, said biopic directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, any good? It is, but it sadly doesn’t try to be anything more than that: simply “good.”
Since before they were born, Richard Williams (Smith) had lofty aspirations for his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Knowing their best path out of their poor Compton neighborhood is their athletic ability, Richard coached his daughters tirelessly since birth to be the best tennis players in the world. However, despite their gifts, Richard struggles to find a coach for his girls, due to the sport’s mostly all-white branding. Still, with the aid of his practical wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), his stern dedication to success, and the ability to advertise and promote like no other, Richard does everything in his power to set his daughters on a path to become the greatest athletes in the history of tennis.
I’m going to get my issues with King Richard out of the way right from the jump, as they make themselves prevalent almost from minute one. The very second this film opens with terrible voiceover on Richard’s part, I audibly gasped “Oh no!” There’s a terrible tendency in Hollywood storytelling – especially as it pertains to aspirational Black figures – to resort to weak clichés and lazy voiceover. Here, Zach Baylin’s screenplay opens with Smith, in a heavy, affected accent, declaring, “Back home in Louisiana, we’s didn’t have time for tennis. We’s was running from the Klan.” I mean, my God, that’s more on-the-nose than anything in The Blind Side, which history has since picked apart for its overdramatization of Michael Oher’s experiences.
Similar complaints can be found in a major Act I arc surrounding a random gang who shows up solely to harass the girls, beat up Richard, then die horrifically. Their inclusion makes no sense, and doesn’t tell us anything about the characters or their struggles that we didn’t already know – and indeed, their dialogue and performances could have come straight out of a million other movies, including a similar subplot in The Blind Side that stopped that film dead in its tracks (I’ll stop beating up the 2009 Oscar nominee now, I promise). These buffoonish caricatures serve no purpose to the story, distract from the sports drama at the center, and easily could have cut fifteen to twenty minutes off of the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime. They exist solely as a hack writing tool by a white guy in order to make all the other white people in the audience clutch their pearls and say, “How sad.”
Unfortunately, decisions like these are included at the expense of almost any understanding of the ins and outs of the Williams Sisters’ athleticism. In fact, outside of calling them “the best,” there’s almost no exploration of their extraordinary talents. The reason most sports films work – especially ones with niche audiences, like tennis or figure skating or boxing – is because the films go out of their way to explain why victory is so challenging, what the athletes must do to their bodies to succeed, and what strategies they employ in unison with their talents to attain their goals.
It’s why Battle of the Sexes is so good, and I, Tonya, and Rocky, and Hoosiers, and Remember the Titans, and so many other films of merit. Here, Marcus Green and Baylin offer up a series of surface-level looks at a few early morning jogs, a handful of hand-eye coordination drills, and a couple of lazily tossed-out strategies that are never explained and often ignored. I’m not sure why these necessary moments have been cut – it’s certainly not for time, considering this film has an extended business meeting that ends in, I sh*t you not, a fart joke. It’s a tragic mishandling of Venus and Serena and their talents, and speaks to deep flaws in Green’s handling of the material, Baylin’s ability to write the material, and editor Pamela Martin’s ability to edit the material.
The film’s script also struggles – and therefore so does the entire film – with the handling of Richard himself. Love him or hate him, Williams is a controversial figure in his own right. While he pushed his daughters towards greatness, managed to keep things moving successfully during their time living in poverty (his non-tennis playing daughters grew up to become doctors and lawyers), and seemed to possess true love for his family, there’s no denying that Williams’ methods were sketchy at best, and traumatizing at worst. This is a man who mapped out his children’s futures in the womb, who made unilateral, stubborn decisions about their training and behavior, who worked as a drillmaster over his entire unit, and at one point, as the film wants us to believe, tried to abandon his daughters at a fast-food restaurant for celebrating too much.
While it seems Venus and Serena grew up to become relatively healthy, it’s hard to deny that his parenting style was somewhere between self-centered and toxic. Now, there’s nothing wrong with portraying a figure like that in film. But King Richard seems disinterested in exploring this aspect of the character whatsoever. It chides anyone who doubts Richard as manipulative or racist (despite the fact that most people would stare dumbfounded if you had a binder of statistics for your daughters made shortly after their conception), and glosses over and tries to find humor in some of his worst moments.
In fact, outside of one late-coming monologue, it never explores his behavior at all. It doesn’t even explore the juxtaposition with the all-white other parents on the tennis court, who are equally manipulative and abusive in their own way. It’s just there, going along for the ride, as if all of this is normal. Which is unfortunate, because it doesn’t leave much for Smith to do. While his charisma keeps the film trekking, and often can distract from some of the film’s glaring problems with his steely-eyed gaze, there’s not much to the performance outside of an over-the-top Louisiana accent that’s way thicker and uneducated than the real Williams ever was. I don’t fault the work based on what he was given, I just know that Smith is capable of more.
So why am I still positive (if only barely) on this film? Simple: the actual sports drama at the center of King Richard is actually pretty compelling. Once he settles into the role and lets his charisma carry over, Smith is, at the end of the day, capable of making this all work. And more importantly, when the film lets the sports drama and the Williams sisters shine (about 30 minutes into the film’s runtime), the story becomes, surprise surprise, incredibly engaging. Whenever Robert Elswit’s camera captures a tennis ball being hit as the music swells, it feels like true movie magic. Speaking of music, beyond Kris Bowers’ effective score, there’s an incredibly evocative use of the song “Any Day Now.”
Several scenes in the orbit of the tennis court work just as well, even if they often have some cliched flaws at their center. In one memorable (and well-acted) scene, Richard makes the family watch Cinderella over and over in order to teach them how to act on the court to keep public sympathy. Actually, any time the entire Williams family (which includes five daughters overall, plus Richard and Brandy) is together, the film is pretty solid. And when Baylin’s screenplay isn’t overdoing it, there are some well-handled reflections on racism within the tennis industry, ranging from the cocky, racist parents competing with Venus to a prospective coach asking Richard if he’s “considered basketball.”
Hell, the film even manages to improve on the mishandled Compton stereotypes from the beginning, in the form of a surprisingly moving scene where a local gang approaches the practicing family to inform them that, having been moved by their abilities and dreams, they will protect them from any neighborhood violence. Actually, I’m not sure if this scene is a positive or a negative. It’s a positive in the sense that I’ve never seen a moment like it in a film like this before, the dialogue isn’t overly corny, and the acting is quite poignant. On the other hand, if the film had this ace up its sleeve, and could shatter stereotypes this effectively, it just makes that opening sequence all the more unnecessary and misguided. Ah well. It just speaks to the film’s mixed-bag nature, I suppose.
Outside of Smith’s commanding central performance, the other actors are all varying degrees of talented, albeit short-shrifted. Sidney and Singleton are absolutely astounding as the girls that would grow up to be legends. They are utterly charismatic and believable in the roles, never letting the legacy of their characters cloud their judgments or their performances. Tony Goldwyn has a great supporting turn as Venus’ first coach, who also happens to be the coach of John McEnroe (we get a brief, distanced shot of a racket being thrown). Goldwyn’s disappearance is a bit heartbreaking halfway through the film, but it does open the door to the terrific character actor Jon Bernthal as legendary coach Rick Macci. Bernthal’s playing a bit against type as the man who coached not just the Williams sisters, but Andy Roddick Maria Sharapova, Jennifer Capriati, Sofia Kenin, and a litany of other major names, but honestly, who cares? If you can get Jon Bernthal in your movie, get Jon Bernthal in your f*cking movie.
Which brings me to the great Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene “Brandy” Williams-Price, a performance that leaves me utterly conflicted to no end. It’s not that Ellis doesn’t have enough moments to shine. She has a series of terrific moments, including her few scenes coaching the girls whenever Richard’s not available, a dramatic showdown with a nosy neighbor, and of course a big monologue late in the third act. Ellis, of course, brings her A-game to each and every one of these scenes.
However, not a single one of her moments feels, in any way, more significant than the litany of “dutiful wife” roles we’ve seen in every Oscar contender for, oh, thirty years? Not to mention that any time the film seems to be ramping up to a big moment – including the ones listed above – the scene is cut drastically and confusingly short, as if the production team suddenly became aware she was about to outshine Smith and needed to be stopped. Ultimately, the role is a testament both to her abilities as an actress and its own narrative shortcomings overall.
King Richard is the ultimate soft lob of a film. It breaks absolutely no new ground and offers little to the audience beyond “Man, aren’t Venus and Serena amazing and inspiring?” It’s riddled with narrative flaws, clichés and missteps throughout. And yet, despite the obvious lack of depth below the surface, you can’t help but be won over on the strength of the overall story and the charms of the actors – especially Smith. It’s a feel-good story through and through, and if you’re willing to overlook glaring structural issues – or at least can table them better than I can, you’ll certainly be impressed with King Richard.
King Richard is now available to rent on VOD. It is also playing in theaters nationwide