MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
King Richard - In Theaters and Streaming on HBO Max (until December 19)
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis
In telling the story of Richard Williams and how he coached and motivated his daughters Venus and Serena to become two of the greatest tennis players in history, King Richard is a movie that is vastly entertaining, often laugh-out-loud funny and – yes – inspirational. It’s a story about how hard work, perseverance, talent, and a bit of luck can move a person straight out of the violent and gang-run streets of Compton and into a life of fame and fortune. It’s a tale that also includes faith (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and marriage as key players in the script. It’s anchored by memorable and awards-worthy lead performances by Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis as Richard and Brandy Williams and energetic and disarming depictions of Venus and Serena by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton. The tennis scenes are incredible recreations of historic matches (the closing credits give away the digital trickery that helped create the amazing athleticism on display).
It’s a real crowd-pleaser of a picture.
But there is also a serious problem with this biopic – and it’s Richard Williams. While he clearly loves his wife and family and works hard at night as a security guard and even harder during the day coaching his girls in tennis (often on city courts in disrepair and under the threatening gaze of local gang members), he is headstrong and unyielding with the tennis pros he manages to persuade to teach and manage his daughters’ careers. Most of the humor in the film comes from the exasperation of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) as they attempt to tamp down the intrusion of Richard into tennis practice. A memorable exchange happens later in the film in which Brandy whittles Richard down to size.
It is evident that the filmmakers (and Will Smith) are aware of this creative tension and use it to good effect to tell a compelling tale that otherwise might have been a generic sports movie, leading to a conclusion that everyone who buys a ticket (or streams at home) would already know.
The real drawback with King Richard is that Venus and Serena Williams were chief consultants on the project. This gives veracity to the depiction of the sisters rarely objecting to their strenuous tennis practices, it also creates a scenario in which their father emerges as the hero of this story. While this is a fitting tribute to one great dad, I was bothered by this film’s overall message of encouragement to any parent who feels like coaching their talented children to success. (Tennis star André Agassi has shared in his memoir that while he possessed the skills of an athlete, he never had much love for the game.) There are dozens of examples of child protégés who were pressured into unhappy careers.
While I enjoyed King Richard and was consistently engaged during its running time of close to 2 ½ hours, I wanted to hear the other stories about the Williams sisters that could be told outside of their family’s influence. It’s an incredible origin story about two sports legends; I just wished at times that the narrative was less centered on the legend of Richard Williams.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: An entertaining story with a memorable lead performance and a colorful supporting cast; positive depictions of faith and marriage.
Three pitchforks: Scenes of racism and racist language; gang violence; abusive behavior hiding behind the guise of positivity.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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