The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) gave the world a closer view of Will Smith’s acting prowess, having been more widely known for his comical role from his 90s Fresh Prince days. King Richard is another movie where the audience is presented with such rich acting, not just from Will Smith, acing the titular role, but the entire cast. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), King Richard is a biopic looking at the role Richard Williams played in setting up his daughters, Serena and Venus, for success in the tennis world.
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The movie starts with Richard trying to get a coach for his daughters in the early 90s, and failing at it for obvious reasons – race. He persists in trying to get a coach for his daughters and it is here he meets the popular coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) while he is practicing with Pete Sampras and John McEnroe. Richard, as usual, pushes his luck with Paul till he accedes to his demand to coach for free, but he would only be coaching one of his daughters, Venus. Conflict begins to arise after Richard does not want things to go coach Cohen’s way, that Venus takes the usual path to tennis stardom by playing the juniors. Subsequently, Richard withdraws Venus from Cohen’s mentorship, which is where we are introduced to Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), a Florida-based coach who trains the juniors champion, Jennifer Capriati. Out Cohen, In Rick. In the deal signed by Rick, Venus is not the only responsibility he has to assume, he also has to take the family in, in Florida—all for 15% of Venus’s future income. Things go smoothly until Richard starts behaving like the flawed man he is.
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Concussion (2015) is another sports biopic that Will Smith has starred in, playing Dr. Bennet Omalu who battles with the NFL over their denial of the link between CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and long-term football playing. Smith plays the Nigerian-born immigrant doctor with a searing and lovely conviction. In King Richard, Will Smith takes his acting many more steps higher while retaining the zealousness from Concussion. Playing a man caught in the webs of his childhood trauma, flawed parenting and rigidity, Will Smith meets the role at the point of its needs. Saniyya Sidney’s portrayal of Venus Williams sits a few feet away from Will’s performance, as Venus battles not only on the court, but in taking charge of her future from her somewhat rigid father. Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams also brings more light to Richard’s character and her role in the tutelage of Serena.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is one of the mantras Richard has taught his daughters; we see him enforce it in their lives by having an eighty-six-page plan for their lives. Sometimes his grip on their lives is so tight that it hurts the family too. One of such instances is him asking the family to re-watch the Disney classic Cinderella when none of the children, the Williams sisters and the Price daughters, claim to have learnt nothing from the movie. For a character who is fixated on control and afraid of losing control of his children’s life, he loses control, as we are made to see he has other children whom he is absent from their lives. He then treats the Williams sisters like his last shot at fatherhood and emancipation from the ghetto life he is living. In the end, we see that his desire to be in control of his children’s lives, though masqueraded to be in their best interest, might have also been a way for him to deal with the flawed parenting he had in a segregated America. Not to cast any aspersions on him, in the end, only one thing mattered—the realization of his ‘plans’ and dreams, which worked. Add that his daughters gradually become in control of their own lives. Looking for lessons from people’s lives in retrospect is very much easier in a world where a billion things or factors might be moving at the same time.
Rather than follow the conventional biopics focusing on the stars, King Richard focuses on Richard Williams. It is through him that we gain entry into the tennis stars’ world. It is essentially a family’s journey to giving themselves a better shot at life. Asides Richard’s excesses, he is a good father to his daughters as he teases himself as their best friend. But, of course, his dark sides always find a way to the surface, like asking his children to cover three miles on foot home due to their inability to keep to his instructions. King Richard is also a father’s attempt at giving his daughters better opportunities in life than he had growing up, especially in an America where thugs roamed the streets harassing his daughters, where the Ku Klux Klan terrorize black people, carrying memories of his father’s abandonment, while white men were beating him up, still lingers.
“Why not a movie about Serena or Venus?”, many might ask. King Richard is a decision that has proven to be effective, as the director has successfully used just a stone to kill a flight of birds. This period piece has at its heart: Richard, Serena and Venus, parenting in the 80s, and family. With the drama, we are made to feel love and hatred for Richard and the film is successful, as we see not just those two but many more layers of humanity stacked in one person.
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- Serena being a greater player than Venus is allegorical to Esau being wealthier than Jacob, despite Esau not being blessed by the father. It goes to show the amount of work and faith Serena put into herself.
- It is good to see Richard getting over his fears, as he is shown brandishing a “Welcome to the Williams family game show” placard.
- I hope this gets Will Smith to the Oscars.
- Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, a coach trying to maneuver the webs Richard has spun around his daughters and their agreement, is funny and interesting to see.
King Richard is available in cinemas nationwide and on HBO Max.
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