Now Playing — King Richard

My first instinct is that the framing of the new film King Richard is off in a way that’s all too common. In telling the tale of two incredible female athletes — one of whom can make a legitimate claim on being the greatest of all time in her sport, and in the conversation for the greatest of all time across all sports — the filmmakers manage to put the focus on the noble heroism of a man. In this instance, what seems to be the reflexive chauvinism of studio storytelling machinery is instead the preferred — or at least least enthusiastically endorsed — perspective of the women themselves. Venus and Serena Williams serve as executive producers of King Richard and have been stumping for it on the entertainment news circuit. They’ve come up with quite a Christmas gift for their father. It’s going to make a lot of half-heartedly selected neckties and gold headcovers under trees coast to coast look that much worse.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard is above the early rise of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) as fearsome tennis prodigies. In part because the film reserves its attention to the handful of years immediately preceding the sisters joining the professional tour in relative close succession (the climactic sequence depicts Venus’s first tournament, in which she briefly threw a scare into the top-seeded player at the time), it turns to one of the facilitators of the youngsters’ drive to success: their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith). In the film, he’s a kind, stern dreamer with a huckster streak. Venus and Serena play tennis because that was always the plan, and Richard has a novella-length plan that details their anticipated domination. He works tirelessly to put the girls through their paces, carting the rest of the family along while he instills life lessons and makes exacting demands for academic achievement.

The film’s intentions are sound, and its execution is merely adequate. Green is workmanlike in his approach, which makes the most familiar elements that much more shopworn: Richard’s face-offs with local toughs, the back and forth as he finally learns to listen to the girls rather than dictate to them, and his gradual overcoming of the patriarchal stubbornness that leads to chronic undervaluing of the contributions of his wife, Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis). Quality improves the more specific the film gets, the more it feels like it’s actually about the struggles these particular competitors faced as they strode into a culture that was reluctant to accept them, because of the color of their skin and the lack of privilege in their shared background. The prejudice encountered by the Williams sisters is touched on only glancingly, a choice that undersells the considerable fortitude it took for them to transcend it. As the start of their story, King Richard is fine. Maybe someday we’ll get a film actually fit for two queens.

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