Will Smith’s Performance Makes King Richard Worth Seeing
Some will look at King Richard and wonder why anyone would want to make a movie about Richard Williams, father to tennis gods Venus and Serena, when his superstar daughters’ stories are right there and more momentous. But oblique approaches to well-known tales can have their own value, and it makes some sense here — as the film is less about the father and more about a fraught but loving family relationship at a pivotal time in all their lives. Richard was born and raised in the segregated South, and his journey was a dramatic one. “Where I grew up, Louisiana, Cedar Grove, tennis was not a game peoples played,” he tells us in the film’s opening narration. “We was too busy running from the Klan.” We don’t actually see his past — the film isn’t really a biopic — but we feel it, in the hunched posture, gravelly determination, and oddly deferential hard-headedness with which Will Smith plays him. It’s as if he’s absorbed a lifetime of hurt and hate so that his kids wouldn’t have to.
When we first meet Richard, he’s already well aware that Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) are enormous talents. Indeed, it’s all part of his so-called plan, an elaborate, preordained trajectory of how Venus and Serena’s lives and careers will develop. “When I’m interested in a thing, I learn it,” Richard tells us. “How it works, how the best peoples in the world do it. And that’s what I did with tennis, with the girls.” That goes beyond just teaching them skills, however; it also involves breaking into the circuit of big-time trainers and clubs, a world in which a Black family from Compton is a rather rare sight. Wandering into the middle of a practice match between Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, overseen by legendary coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), Richard insists that the bewildered Cohen watch his daughters play. Sure enough, within a few minutes, Cohen has taken on Venus as a student for free. (He can’t teach both kids, however, so Serena — who would, perhaps ironically, go on to become an even bigger tennis champion — has to stay home and continue lessons with her mom, Oracene, played by Aunjanue Ellis.)
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard bounces along briskly through its somewhat predictable plot points. Cohen tells Richard that to get noticed, Venus needs to participate in junior tournaments. Soon, she’s destroying any and all opponents, leaving her young rivals and their parents angry, humiliated, and questioning their decision to play this sport in the first place. Richard loves to talk about his aforementioned plan as an iron-clad thing, but there seems to be more improvisation and backpedaling than he lets on. Despite Venus’s astounding success in juniors, Richard becomes convinced that the relentless grind of the circuit will psychologically ruin his daughter. So he changes coaches — to Florida-based Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, doing a perfect impression of just about every other adult I met in the 1980s), whom he hopes will train Venus without the immediate promise of competitive glory.
Of course, Richard’s decisions about doing what’s best for his daughters never actually seem to involve his daughters, or Oracene, despite the fact that she appears to have been just as instrumental in helping the girls develop their skills. That’s not the only fundamental, or obvious, inconsistency in his approach. He wants the girls to enjoy their childhoods, and to not become victims to expectations and pressure — and yet he’s harder on them than just about anyone else. We find a perfect example of this in a scene when Richard makes the whole family sit down and watch a VHS of Disney’s Cinderella; when he feels that the kids haven’t gleaned the right lessons from the movie, he makes them watch it again. The film wants us to feel love for this man, sure — but maybe a little terror, too. (Venus and Serena are producers of the film. Richard himself was reportedly uninvolved, and even reluctant.) We understand that, for all his wisdom and his dedication to the girls, there’s a slightly tyrannical streak to this man, a refusal to entertain opposing views. He wants his daughters to be kids, but he himself, it seems, has forgotten to be a grown-up.
There’s pathos here, too. And that’s where having Will Smith pays the most dividends. Because he is also such a huge movie star, we often overlook the actor’s transformative capabilities — as evidenced in previous films like the sublime Ali and the not-so-sublime Concussion. His performance here is not a full-on impersonation, as far as I can tell. Instead, he seems to have brought his own poetic physicality to the part. He plays Richard as a rough, gruff man, his bearing nearly collapsing under all the responsibilities he’s put on himself. It’s a touching turn, but not a particularly surprising one, thanks to a pro forma script that telegraphs all its big moments and rarely tries for the unexpected, keeping all its key emotional beats to the level of incident and dialogue — which feels like a bit of a waste when you have as dynamic and versatile a presence as Smith.
Still, when King Richard works, it sings. During one teary, late-night confessional, Richard tells Venus of a time when, as a child in Shreveport, he was beaten in front of his father by a group of white men for accidentally touching one of them. He recalls that his dad just ran away from the scene, ashamed and unwilling to help. So Richard has made a promise to himself. “I never want you to look up, and see your dad running away,” he tells Venus as he chokes back tears. When the girls are competing, however, we do see him turn away, keeping his head down or off to the side — as if, for all his outward confidence, he can’t bear to watch what happens. During a climactic match between Venus and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, he’s out by the locker rooms, wandering the corridors, watching on TV, anywhere but in the stands. Earlier, we’d seen him bemusedly watching the aggressive parents of Venus’s (usually white) rivals petulantly yanking their kids away after their losses, as they loudly complained and dismissed their second- and third-place trophies. Richard may not be one of those outwardly hypercompetitive adults, but he’s not entirely free of his own fears and weaknesses either; he’s merely internalized it all. So that when he does take his seat in the stands — as he must — we understand that his daughters’ accomplishments will liberate and lift him as well.