Will Smith gives a masterclass performance in an otherwise generic film
Will Smith is one of the unsung treasures of modern cinema. The American actor can quite literally do anything, from television, to action, comedy, family, and highbrow drama. As he’s gotten older, he’s become choosier with his roles, which has made us to appreciate his presence whenever we are graced with it. It is therefore a delight to see him in his newest feature: King Richard (2021).
King Richard tells the story of Richard Williams (Smith) the father of two tennis prodigies, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). We follow as Richard details the carefully planned trajectory that he’s conceived to sporting success since before his daughters’ births. The film builds to Venus first professional tournament at age 14 where she nearly upset world no. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (Marcela Zacarias).
King Richard is directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green who burst onto the scene with indie darling Monsters and Men (2018). His foray into more mainstream fare has been uneven, however. This year the director has also released Joe Bell (2021), which it proved a well-intentioned if very messy film. King Richard is a step forward from Joe Bell, but is still distanced from the style and tone that made Monsters and Men so captivating.
The personality of Richard Williams, with his air of inevitability of success, is intriguing material to work with; however, as a filmmaker, one must dig deeper than the surface level image that is being sold. Unfortunately, King Richard does not do that. Throughout the film we are given examples of the hard work that Serena and Venus undergo to achieve their dream, but they are presented as routine rather than limit-breaking. Just as Richard Williams’ public persona exemplified, the journey to success is made to seem inevitable in the film. King Richard is never interested in exploring why Serena and Venus became who they were.
Marcus Green does go into the challenges that the Williams family underwent being black and working class in America. It is perhaps here that the fight for dignity and respect from Richard becomes most affecting. However, whenever King Richard seems to be circling darker aspects of the sports or child-prodigy world, it steps back. This was disappointing, as to delve into the contrasts of a loving but slightly exploitative father would have been a fascinating character journey. King Richard seems too intent on elevating its characters as idols to excavate the grey areas abound. The film also seems unaware of the contradiction of criticizing the white tennis world for wanting to exploit and use Venus and Serena, only for Richard to be micromanaging and robbing them of agency himself.
Sadly, Marcus Green is not very adept at crafting exciting sports sequences either. His camera work makes the matches hard to follow since he never shows the full court and follows the ball around with a shaky-cam. The visual work during these sequences gives off the air of filmmakers who haven’t really watched real tennis matches themselves. They could certainly have taking pointers from the captivating tennis sequences at the center of The Battle of the Sexes (2017) or Borg vs. McEnroe (2017). Marcus Green also stumbles into pitfalls in the finale, by trying to find an excuse to Venus’ loss (21-year-old spoiler alert), instead of accepting a grueling and fascinating match between two tennis titans. In this latter part Marcus Green could have taken a page out of Rocky (1976), where an equal match makes the resulting outcome all the more emotional, instead of a conspiracy against the protagonist.
Thankfully, Marcus Green has Smith at the helm of this picture, and the American star carries this entire feature. Smith dives so deep into his character that he becomes difficult to recognize. I’ve only seen this dedication and effectiveness in his work in Concussion (2015) and Ali (2001) (curiously two other sports films). Smith has the difficult job of showing both the strictness of Richard Williams with his unconditional love for his family, and he truly pulls it off. There are other notable supporting turns littered in King Richard, from a criminally underutilized Aunjanue Ellis to the always great Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn, but they are mere cameos next to the centrifugal power of Smith.
King Richard is a film that has fascinating material at its core, but Marcus Green timidly plays it safe for a generic underdog sports film, which is effective in its intimate scenes. Will Smith is spectacular and individually nearly able to transcend the film’s flaws.