I finally caught up with KING RICHARD (2021) the other day, the film in which Will Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as tennis stars’ Venus and Serena Williams’ controversial father, Richard Williams.
And no, I didn’t decide to watch it because of the “slap” at the Oscars and all that has happened and continues to happen after it, but admittedly, I did decide to watch it because Smith won the Oscar. I initially passed on it when it premiered this past November, mostly because I’m not a fan of the work of Will Smith, which makes the “slap” incident all the more unfortunate, because Smith delivers a heck of a performance which is by far the best part of the movie.
In KING RICHARD, Will Smith plays Richard Williams as a driven, determined man who has a “plan” to make his daughters Venus and Serena tennis stars. In an early voice over, he explains how it is a financial decision, as he knows how much money tennis champions make, and he sets out to see that his daughters become just that. Lost in the screenplay by Zach Baylin is why tennis? There are lots of ways to make money and become successful, but why Richard set his sights on tennis is never clearly explained.
So Richard and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) who is in lock step with her husband regarding his plan for his daughters, work their daughters hard, practicing every day, so much so that they raise the ire of their neighbor who thinks they are working their daughters too hard and even goes so far at one point to call the police on them. But Richard is no slave driver. In fact, he stresses throughout the movie that he wants his daughters to have fun most of all, and he refuses to put too much pressure on them, all the while stressing the importance of their academic endeavors with the thinking being once their tennis careers are over, they will have to fall back on something else which is why they need an education.
Richard also sets out to find a coach who will work with his daughters for free, and after boldly approaching Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who at the time was coaching Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, he strikes gold when Cohen is indeed impressed by watching Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) play, and he agrees to coach— but just one of the daughters for free.
This arrangement works well until Richard decides to pull his daughters from playing in the Juniors tournament because he sees the stress of what happens to the other girls at this young age level, a decision which is highly controversial and leads to his decision to walk away from Cohen. Eventually, Richard secures another top coach for the girls, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), and while Richard’s unconventional methods continue, to the point where even his wife Brandy calls him out, they don’t get in the way of his daughters’ success, and the rest is history.
I enjoyed KING RICHARD quite a bit, and I have to say, the main reason I enjoyed it so much was indeed Will Smith’s performance as Richard Williams. His depiction of Williams is as a tireless, devoted father to his girls, who has a plan for their success which most others feel is laughable. But he sticks with it, and they become the best tennis players in the world. In spite of his insistence on doing things “his way” what’s admirable about the character is he never deviates from putting his daughter’s best interests at the forefront. Of course, in reality, there are different opinions about the behavior and motives of the real Richard Williams, but in the movie, he’s an unconventional but stand-up guy who really is all about protecting his daughters while they work their way to success, fame, and fortune.
And Will Smith captures this brilliantly. As I said, I am not a fan of the work of WiIl Smith. With the exception of his portrayal of Deadshot in the flawed and uneven DC superhero film SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) I just haven’t enjoyed his performances or movies all that much. I’m not a big fan of the BAD BOYS or MEN IN BLACK movies. I did enjoy his performance as Muhammad Ali in ALI (2001), but I liked his work here in KING RICHARD better. So, for my money, the Oscar is well-deserved, because it’s the best performance I’ve seen Smith deliver. Which makes his actions on stage at the Oscars going after Chris Rock even sadder.
I also enjoyed Aunjanue Ellis as Brandy Williams, and Jon Bernthal as coach Macci. It was fun to see Bernthal cast against type and not play his usual tough guy role. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton were also solid as Venus and Serena Williams.
KING RICHARD was directed by Reinaldo Marcu Green with little fanfare or overdramatic gusto. The tennis sequences oddly fall flat, and hardly generate much excitement. The story here really, as its title says, is about Richard Williams. Everything that happens is viewed through his eyes, and his perspective is brilliantly captured by Will Smith.
Smith’s Oscar, in spite of his misguided behavior on stage, is well-deserved.