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Will Smith serves up an ace in ‘King Richard’

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The difficult sports parent is a character with whom many of us are all too familiar. We’ve seen it play out time and time again, men and women (but mostly men) pushing their kids to the brink and beyond in an effort to propel them to athletic greatness. These are the parents who turn their children into cautionary tales rather than champions.

But sometimes, the story is a bit more complicated than we’re led to believe.

Richard Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. Many people viewed him as harsh and demanding, a loudmouth who took too much credit for the athletic brilliance of his daughters. And the media at the time certainly had no problem painting him with that brush.

But in the new film “King Richard” – currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max – we’re given a much more nuanced look at the man, with Will Smith playing the titular role. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a screenplay by Zach Baylin, it’s a look at the early days of the ascendance of the Williams sisters by way of their father, whose unorthodox methods and attitudes rubbed people the wrong way even as he remained fiercely devoted to the belief that his daughters’ success didn’t have to come at the expense of some semblance of normalcy.

Call it a sports movie about fathers and daughters or call it a family drama revolving around sports, it doesn’t matter. Anchored by one of the best performances of Smith’s career, it is a compelling and challenging look at one man’s unconventional efforts to drive his children to greatness and his willingness to do whatever it took to get them there.

In the early 1990s, Richard Williams (Will Smith) lives in Compton with his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). Together, they’re raising five kids – three daughters from Oracene’s previous relationship and two that they share. Those two youngsters are Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), and Richard has devoted himself to turning them both into tennis champions.

However, it is a long way from the cracked concrete courts of Compton to the country club world of high-end tennis. And while Richard and Oracene have done well with the girls, there’s only so far that the two of them can take the girls. They’re talented, but they need real, professional coaching.

Unfortunately, money is tight – too tight to afford the tens of thousands of dollars that coaching will cost. And so, Richard hustles, trying to find coaches who will take on his girls as students in exchange for percentages of their future earnings as professionals. As you might imagine, these coaches aren’t too keen on this gamble – particularly when they’re looking at two raw Black girls who have never competed at a high level.

But Richard is committed to the dream – and he is nothing if not persistent. Eventually, he’s able to convince noted coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to take on Venus, though Serena isn’t part of the deal. She learns quickly, but the dynamic between coach and parent is rife with struggle. That antagonistic relationship with coaches continues as the sisters work with other coaches, including Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), whose abilities lead the whole family to relocate to Florida.

There are conflicts along the way – and not just within the confines of tennis. Richard’s seemingly reckless and impulsive decision-making leads to issues between him and Oracene, though the kids – all of them, not just Venus and Serena – seem more or less unaware of those tensions when they arise.

At just 14, Venus is attracting attention as a potential superstar from both the tennis world and the corporate one. But even then, with his daughter on the cusp of unprecedented, life-altering financial success, Richard continues to push, believing in his heart that he – and only he – knows what’s best.

As someone who enjoys biopics, loves sports movies and admires Will Smith, I’m pretty much at the center of the Venn diagram of this movie’s potential audience. I was always going to dig “King Richard.” But while I had heard a lot of good things, I don’t think I was quite ready for just how good it was.

It all revolves around Will Smith, of course. It has been a while since Smith took a big awards-season swing, but this is very much that. It’s a phenomenal part written into a compelling story, but it’s the willingness of Smith to subvert his movie star energy into something altogether different that really powers this one. That undeniable charisma is still there, but it’s the closest he has come to disappearing into a role in a long time … and that disappearance is what is very likely going to get him the types of recognition that he has coveted for a long time.

The shadow of hagiography always looms over projects like this one – particularly when the project has the approval of the involved parties. You’re left to wonder just how frankly the subject will be treated. But while there are certainly some less-savory aspects of the real-life Richard Williams glossed over, the character is engaged with as a flawed, complicated man. There’s some narrative license taken, but in the end, Richard Williams was no saint and “King Richard” doesn’t treat him as one.

Smith’s is far from the only excellent performance, however. Ellis has a handful of powerful scenes where she goes toe-to-toe with Smith in full movie star mode; it’s hard to hang in those situations, but she does it with seeming ease. The girls – Sidney and Singleton – are exceptional, giving nuanced and thoughtful performances that belie their youth. And it’s a good thing, too – few things would have torpedoed this film as thoroughly as poor performances from either of those spots. Hell, they even looked the part on the tennis court, which is no small thing. As for the coaches, Goldwyn is good and Bernthal is great.

“King Richard” is a fantastic movie, a throwback of sorts to the kind of prestige sports film we used to see more of two or three decades ago. It is an absolute tour de force performance for Will Smith, who has a real shot at finally landing his Oscar, and a launching pad for a pair of bright young talents. Dramatically compelling and stylistically interesting, it definitely hits a winner.

In short, “King Richard” rules.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 22 November 2021 10:11

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