Unforced Errors in Oscar-Nominated “King Richard”

Some say that Will Smith has been after the prestige of a leading actor Oscar since 2001, when he starred in Michael Mann’s Ali. It can be argued that a sixth of his career has been an attempt to secure this goal, from his two collaborations with Gabriele Muccino — The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Seven Pounds (2008) — to Concussion (Peter Landesman, 2015) and Collateral Beauty (David Frankel, 2016). These films vary wildly in craftsmanship, but their quality feels secondary to their primary goal of showcasing Smith’s acting capabilities. Unfortunately, such is also the case with his latest film, King Richard, a biopic of Richard Williams, the controversial father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena.

The film follows Richard Williams as he shepherds his daughters into and through the world of professional tennis, something he admits is calculated based on the dearth of Black athletes in the sport. We witness his struggles to get his foot through the door of the establishment, from trying to find a coach who will train his daughters for free to maintaining a balance between their sports careers and their academics. We see the family grapple with poverty, the criticisms of neighbors, and gang violence, until a series of coaches accept Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton) and start to bring social and fiscal capital to their family. As the story progresses through the early history of Venus’s career, we see the family and coaches spar with Richard over his methods and controlling nature, which leads to most of the dramatic conflict in the film outside of the admittedly well-staged tennis matches.

Much of the narrative feels incidental and highly repetitive, with a structure that cannot help but repeat certain kinds of scenes. Long stretches of the film consist of Smith’s Richard monologuing about his process and philosophy as a coach and father, the recipients of said monologues either bucking against or caving to his charisma, followed by sequences of Serena and Venus practicing or playing tennis. It becomes increasingly tedious to watch such similar sequences throughout the film, and it steadily grates on one’s ability to appreciate the film’s strengths. This repetition also makes the film’s weaknesses much more pronounced and harder to ignore.

Richard is the only character who feels allowed to have depth for more than one scene, and that depth feels insincere. Everything Richard does is vindicated by the foregone success of Serena and Venus, so the film carries an implicit acceptance of his actions. For example, Richard’s hatred for how parents of other athletes treat their kids and apply pressure to them is vindicated by the film, as it shows a variety of parents behaving badly toward their child athletes to concur with his attitudes. The film is never critical of his character in meaningful ways, with minor exceptions (a fight with his wife, Aunjanue Ellis’s Oracene, is one example). As a result, a critical dramatic aspect of the film — namely the controversy surrounding Richard and his methods, philosophy, and statements — fails to carry weight.

In the past, Reinaldo Marcus Green, who directed the film, tackled the subject of difficult fatherhood, especially in his other would-be Oscar contender Joe Bell (2020), in which Mark Wahlberg played a homophobic father seeking redemption after his gay son commits suicide. However, that film feels sincerely invested in asking if the titular patriarch is in the right or not, something that King Richard never entertains. Green’s incorporation of nuanced politics, a staple of his work since his debut Monsters and Men (2018), has always been something I have appreciated in his work. Here, however, it feels little more than haphazard and incidentally evoked, almost to the point of feeling like an afterthought. Considering how much the film touts Black representation as significant in itself, an agreeable position, and despite that Richard deliberately “plays into” his race, Richard seems to hate that others see him and his family for their race. That feels like it could have been an interesting facet of his character to explore, especially given how the film hints at his deeply internalized self-loathing. Instead, the film relies on increasingly tired sports biopic formulas without much else to offset them. This is in part due to a clunky, overly expository, and saccharine script by Zach Baylin, which leans too much on inspirational quotes and hollow platitudes without offering substance to make the emotions pay off.

On a more positive note, the performances are strong across the board, especially from Aunjanue Ellis, who played Oracene, and Jon Bernthal. Bernthal plays against type as Rick Macci, one of the coaches who butts heads with Richard the most. He is lanky, pleasant, and quite different from the strongmen with which he is most often associated. Ellis, when allowed to, shines brightly as the family matriarch, who admits that on occasion she had to work behind Richard’s back to fix his mistakes. The film, at several mfoments, teases at the film where she, not he, is the lead, and we see her interact more often with Venus and Serena. I wish we had gotten that film. Robert Elswit’s cinematography is nice, Pamela Martin’s editing kept the tennis sequences engaging, and the makeup artists and clothing designers did an excellent job of capturing the period. Sidney’s performance as Venus is excellent. When the film transitions into a Venus Williams biopic, which it eventually does, it works better, even though Venus as a character overall remains underdeveloped.

King Richard is a respectable, if often dull and disappointing, film. It reminds me of Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), which was based on the real life of White House butler Eugene Allen. King Richard agitates a cynicism that is hard to ignore and frequently provokes apathy despite its inspirational story. In other words, it’s prime Oscar bait that may well finally get Smith his Oscar.

King Richard
Written by: Zach Baylin
Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal
Available to rent/buy on Prime Video