From a very young age, Venus and Serena Williams talent was so undeniable, their dominance in tennis so resolute, that a biopic about the Williams sisters' rise to stardom would be completely boring.
So, the only way to make an interesting movie about their youth is to make a movie about their father, Richard Williams, and KING RICHARD is the story of how one man's insecurities hold his daughters back.
Will Smith (SHARK TALE) stars as the titular Richard Williams, the deadbeat father of anywhere between eight and twenty kids, who is trying to mold his daughters Venus and Serena into tennis stars.
The film is produced by Venus and Serena, who only allowed their names to be attached if they approved of the story. This is a flabbergasting decision because in this movie, the writers made Richard as unlikable, stubborn, and obnoxious as you could possibly imagine.
He's basically the black Howard Ratner, the villainous protagonist of the 2019 crime thriller film, Uncut Gems.
Richard spends the first third of the movie harassing world-class tennis coaches into coaching his daughters for free, until one finally agrees to coach Venus.
The next part of the movie focuses on how Richard keeps getting in the way, arguing with Venus' tennis coach, Paul Cohen, and finally firing him over a dispute about playing Junior Tournaments.
Then, Richard tricks Rick Macci, another legendary tennis coach, into signing a contract to coach the girls for free and pay for his family to move to Florida. At the same time, he spends years refusing to let Venus play in tournaments. And here we come to my biggest issue with the story: why does Rick Macci put up with all this?
Sure, Saniyya Sidney's (FENCES) performance is truly radiant, but when it's time for her to play tennis, I don't see what every character in the movie sees.
I recognize that this isn't Sidney's fault. It's impossible to take a fourteen-year-old actress and make her play as well as Venus did at that age. The movie relies on characters saying she's incredible over and over again, but all of that rings hollow over the course of this two-and-a-half-hour long movie.
This leads to a believability problem - I simply didn't believe that Rick Macci, a legendary coach who had previously produced Jennifer Capriati, would put up with Richard's bullshit for four years, investing thousands of hours of his own time and tens of thousands of dollars of his own money with no endgame in sight.
I can't speak to the historical accuracy of KING RICHARD. Maybe it was the case that Rick Macci really did tolerate Richard for years because he knew Venus and Serena would be stars. But because I don't see the talent on screen, I can't buy into the world the movie wants to sell me.
This issue becomes apparent early on. Venus' first coach, Paul Cohen, introduces Richard to Dylan McDermott, a potential sponsor for Venus. Their meeting starts with Richard joking that the sponsors are in the KKK. McDermott is offering $100,000 to the Williams family because he wants Venus to become a poster child for Black Tennis Girls. This offer greatly offends Richard, who turns him down by farting in response.
One would think that such a ridiculous and dishonorable display would lead Cohen to swiftly kick the Williams family to curb - but he doesn't, because Venus is SOOOOOOO good we're told over and over again. We never see it, though - ever. We just hear characters talk about her transcendent talent and are required to take it on faith (or supply our own memories of her real life climb to superstardom).
This brings me to another point. The racial politics of KING RICHARD are bizarre.
The film brushes against racism (see the aforementioned Dylan McDermott scene) in a way that suggests the family was held back because of racism.
But that's just not the case, even in the movie.
Over and over, the movie frames things in a way that suggests white supremacy is the villain, that the Williams family are the victims, but it never shows us how. That is, not until Richard, who has spent years refusing to let Venus play competitively, tells his daughter about growing up as a black man in the South.
Apparently, according to Richard, during Richard's youth he was beaten by a group of white men while his father ran away. A moving scene, to be sure, but in the larger context of the movie, all it shows us is that Richard has been holding Venus back because he's afraid of an outdated racism that she hasn't and won't ever have to face. This comes after two hours of rich white men putting up with his stubborn attitude and spending loads of money because they believe in his black daughters' talent.
At the end of the day, Venus and Serena Williams are the best women to ever play the game - with Serena in her prime performing at a level that is hard to imagine ever being matched. KING RICHARD was supposed to be a love letter to the man who got them there. But all the film taught me is that if you're destined to be the best, not even your shitty father can stop you.
Performances: Sidney as Venus is truly wonderful, everyone else is fine but not impressive
Length: 45 minutes too long
Final Rating: 6/10, watch it on HBOMax.