Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Stars: Will Smith, Demi Singleton, Aunjanue Ellis
Was Will Smith bored? Is that why this has happened? Did the man see his acting career becoming mo-cap, voice work and cameos, and did it send a chill down his spine? Was he wandering the halls of his mansion like a lost Quentin Tarantino, staring at bare shelves while thinking to himself, “have I missed by Oscar shot?”, his previous nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness starting to feel a lonnnng time ago? Is that when he called a meeting and started the ball rolling on King Richard?
Smith is among the first credited producers of this Academy baiting sports biopic. The above is a snarky imagining of the motivations that prompted this film, but the finished product feels every bit as disingenuous.
The once Fresh Prince stars as Richard Williams, father of Venus (Demi Singleton) and Serena (Saniyya Sidney), and charts his years of hustle and struggle to get his daughters into the high-flying echelons of professional tennis. He is a Man with a Plan, boasting to strangers and prospective coaches that he and his wife Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) even conceived the girls with this future in mind. For a good long while, the presence of the girls in the film is borderline immaterial. This is Richard’s success story; a journey of single-minded belligerence and ego-mania without so much as a modicum of drama to power it.
It’s impressive, given that this year has already gifted us Ray Winstone trying to pretend to be Russian, that Smith’s performance is as bad as it is. With a stoop in his walk and a gurn fixed on his face, Smith’s impersonation of Richard Williams is equal parts Dr. Huxtable from The Cosby Show and Grandpa Simpson, all fed through the bleary-eyed sensibilities of Forrest Gump. While everyone around him approximates the mannerisms and responses of an ordinary human being, Smith snarls and slobbers through the midway like a man possessed. It is egregiously self-fulfilling. An almost parody-proof imposition on the film (SNL will have nowhere to go with this other than direct like-for-like mockery).
Perhaps this kind of largess was deliberate. Richard Williams seems to have been an imposing person, as all pushy parents seem to be. Yet he isn’t interrogated as such. Much as he likes to chastise the toxic stereotype, he considers himself separate from the phenomenon, and the film never acts differently. He’s above such harmful behaviour. Indeed, the entire second half of the picture is about his reluctance to burn out his girls, even as Venus yearns to compete professionally. Richard’s controversial plan to keep her out of tournaments is played as protective and nurturing – thought it is just as controlling and suffocating – with only one scene in which Brandy takes him to task on his own fear of failure. And even then, it is all Richard, all the time.
It’s a shame, because at the fringes of the frame there is evidence of a better film trying to breathe. While Reinaldo Marcus Green’s direction is pedestrian at best, things belatedly come alive when he gets courtside for Venus’ match against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. The film is finally allowed a frisson of energy, while Richard is left to pace grouchily in the wings like a ball-busted lion. Chiefly, however, it is Demi Singleton who shines (when she can) as the young Venus, bringing naturalistic spirit and grit to the part that recalls Karidja Touré’s work in Girlhood. This could prove to be just as remarkable a debut as her character’s.
Which leads us to the other primary crux of why King Richard fails. It feels as though it’s telling the wrong story.
With better performances coming from young women a quarter of Will Smith’s age, it was obviously too late to re-frame the piece around Venus and Serena themselves, but this ought to have been their film, instead of a syrupy piece of hagiography for their father. King Richard seems wildly out of step with the present zeitgeist. It is time for strong women to be celebrated through their own thoughts, actions and powers. We get only the most cursory inspection of who these girls were and how they felt. Viewing the rise and success of the Williams sisters through the prism of their patriarchy feels as curmudgeonly as Will Smith’s performance. It would have been difficult to bet the farm on young and untested actors such as these, but it would’ve shown an act of verve and faith equal to the story being told.
Instead we have a picture that is long and inert, crushed by Will Smith’s eagerness to hold a statuette. He isn’t the only producer here. Venus and Serena themselves helped shepherd King Richard to us, so one assumes they signed off on these decisions. But the bias this lends the film perhaps also explains its lack of inquiry into the lives and minds of their younger selves. It seems, ultimately, like a large and tacky birthday card to their dear ol’ daddy.