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November 13, 2021

Denver Film Festival - King Richard


Reinaldo Marcus Green - 2021
Warner Brothers Pictures

There is a moment when Richard Williams, father of tennis stars Venus and Serena, has a meeting with a potential corporate sponsor. Williams is told how his accomplishments with his daughters are incredible. Although perhaps not intended that way, Williams interprets the remark as condescending. Still, for anyone else, except Richard Williams, what he did and how he did it is still remarkable.

With all the advance buzz on King Richard, I can some trepidation. How often are we suppose to be moved by that sports film where the underdog athlete or team wins at the end? Biographical films are even trickier because the audience usually knows the outcome. Even though it has been appearing in the film festival circuit, King Richard is a multiplex friendly crowd pleaser. If it is in any way manipulative of pulling heartstrings, it comes across more honestly, with less obvious effort.

Williams is presented as a man with a dream, perhaps better described as an obsession, which his daughters embrace. Simultaneously he appears to the tennis professionals he seeks for coaching his daughters as a "stage father", the parent who tries to live through their children's success. With his plans for his daughters' future, the certainty that propels him also at times is a stumbling block. It should be noted that while this is a biographical film, it is not entirely factual, with some events telescoped and others glossed over. The Williams sisters served as executive producers on the film, so have a vested interest in protecting their legacy. I would advise viewers to stick around for the end credits which feature Richard Williams home video of the teen and pre-teen sisters, which is mimicked by Green in the film's reenactments. The timeline for the film is primarily between 1991 and 1994, when Venus played her first professional match. While the film makes reference to several of the other well-known tennis players of the day, I would have liked to have seen mention of Althea Gibson, whom due to racial restrictions in place decades earlier, as well as restrictions on female tennis players, was unable to realize even a fraction of the kind of financial success available to the Williams sisters. It may also be worth noting that King Richard is similar to Green's other release of this year, Joe Bell with a story about a father trying to redeem himself through his children, and home movie credits at the end.

Even if the idea of a post-racial society has proven to be flimsy, the Williams sisters were able to bring a wider popularity to tennis than Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe. Intertwined with how the sisters became tennis stars is the quietly stated inclusion of living with grace off the athletic field. And since the film is titled King Richard, the praise given to Will Smith has been honestly earned in conveying the self-contradictions, the warmth and occasionally unyielding disciplinarian as a father. Just as Richard Williams' predictions for his daughters succeeded beyond expectations, sometimes a movie using some of very familiar tropes can also transcend the cliches.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 13, 2021 07:54 AM