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Non-Review Review: King Richard

King Richard is an interesting take on the classic sports biopic.

On the one hand, King Richard is a very conventional film. It’s a movie that hits all of the marks that one expects for an inspiring look at two sports icons like Venus and Serena Williams. There is family tension. There are debates about whether the young athletes are ready. There are training montages. Made with the active participation of the Williams family, King Richard was never going to be a gritty “warts and all” interrogation of its subject. Instead, it’s a charming and charismatic star vehicle for Will Smith, one of cinemas most charming and charismatic stars.

King Richard holds Court.

However, there’s also an interesting tension at play within the film itself, one that derives from the film’s understand of just how inevitable the success of Venus and Serena Williams actually is. To be fair, most sports biopics are stories of triumph over adversity, given that they tend to focus on successful sports stars. However, Venus and Serena Williams exist in such rarified company, dominating culture to such an impressive degree, that the conclusion of King Richard doesn’t just feel predetermined but inescapable.

Cleverly, King Richard doesn’t try to fight this idea. Instead, it leans into it. King Richard is a character study of Richard Williams, the hustler who boasts eagerly and enthusiastically that he is “in the champion-raising business.” To any outside observer, Richard’s confidence borders on insanity. When an observer remarks that he’s claiming to have raised “the next Mohammad Ali”, Richard is quick to correct them and boast that he’s got “two” of them. There’s an interesting frisson at play here, because King Richard trusts its audience to know that – no matter how surreal his claims might appear to his contemporaries – he is entirely correct.

A Rich(ard) character study…

In hindsight, it seems almost absurd to point out how severely the odds were stacked against the success of Venus and Serena Williams. The two were born into a large working class family in Compton, surrounded by drugs and violence, with nowhere to train but community tennis courts. Richard and his wife Brandy didn’t have the money to send the pair to upper-class academies, so had to teach the girls themselves with an obsessive devotion to recording and playing back the work of professionals. However, none of that really matters, because any audience watching King Richard knows the outcome of this story.

The result of all of this is a sports biopic that hews quite close to the familiar rhythms and template of other sports biopics, but which operates according to a different internal tension. It’s a movie which sticks close enough to events that there’s no second act humbling of Richard, Venus or Serena. The movie never tries to build suspense around whether its stars are going to succeed in the face of the enormous odds against them, but instead about when and why. It’s a subtle shift in emphasis. However, coupled with the film’s strong casting and powerhouse lead performance, it’s enough to help King Richard stand out from the crowd.

The perfect Ten(nis)?

King Richard is very much a star vehicle for Will Smith. Smith is arguably one of the last of a dying breed, a genuine movie-star. Like Tom Cruise, Smith has managed to somewhat tenuously hold on to star power in the franchise age through a series of savvy creative choices, usually by hitching his star power to an established intellectual property like Suicide Squad or Aladdin or by engaging with it directly in films like Gemini Man or even by stooping on to streaming blockbusters where he can coast on his star power like Bright.

To a certain extent, King Richard is built around Smith as a movie star. He is centred on the poster. He gets above the title billing. The movie is named for his character. The story of these two phenomenal athletes is framed through the character that he plays. While the supporting cast includes both strong supporting players like Aunjanue Ellis and a cavalcade of “that guy” character actors like Tony Goldwyn, Jon Beranthal and even a delightfully weird cameo from Dylan McDermott, King Richard is undeniably a Will Smith movie.

It is also a showcase for Will Smith as a serious dramatic actor. Smith is easily one of the most charismatic actors of his generation, and his easy charm makes it easy to overlook that he has always had pretty solid dramatic chops. There is perhaps a sense of bias at play here when it comes to talking about Will Smith as a “serious” actor, which tends to focus on awards plays like The Pursuit of Happiness and Collateral Beauty and even The Legend of Bagger Vance over Smith’s ability to use that dramatic strength to anchor blockbusters like I Am Legend.

Richard Williams is a mess of contradictions, which makes him fascinating to watch. One of the movie’s central internal questions concerns whether Venus and Serena are pursuing their dreams, or the dream of their father. The film repeatedly touches on the idea that the two sets of dreams have blurred together over time, and the family frequently find themselves at odds about who exactly gets to steer and control that dream, whether Richard’s “plan for greatness” affords his daughters any agency, or whether it is merely a fancy way of framing a series of awkward improvisations from a man who has no idea what he was doing.

Champing at the bit.

As one might expect from a film produced with the active participation of the family that it documents, King Richard isn’t necessarily interested in the rougher edges of its protagonist. A lot of Richard’s backstory is somewhat obscured. There are a few off-hand references to some of his completely insane public boasts, and many of his past indiscretions are only fleetingly raised in a big climactic argument with Brandy. They aren’t where King Richard chooses to focus its camera.

Instead, King Richard takes the basic decency of its subject for granted, and so frames his internal conflict as one caught between two competing impulses. Richard raised his daughters from a young age to be tennis champions, assured in his belief that they could be the best tennis players in the world. However, as his “plan for greatness” reaches its cusp, Richard holds back. He seems to question himself and the world, as he watches the chaos of the Los Angeles riots and the collapse of Jennifer Capriati, wondering whether he can in good conscience throw his daughters into that maw.

A good sport.

King Richard avoids too much clunky exposition in terms of characterisation, cleverly keeping Richard’s motivations reasonably oblique. The film instead makes a conscious effort to pair particular events, suggesting cause and effect. Shortly after the Los Angeles riots tear up their hometown, Richard signs a deal with tennis coach Ricky Macci to move the entire family to Florida. While Richard blames a lot of his reluctance to let Venus turn professional on what happened to Jennifer Capriati, other characters openly wonder whether Richard is paralysed by the possibility that his plan might actually reach fruition.

Smith’s performance effectively holds King Richard together, capturing the conflicting and contradictory impulses within the central character. Smith plays Richard as a man who sincerely and unequivocally believes in what he is doing and what he is selling, but also as somebody who seems as terrified by the prospect of success as the possibility of failure. Smith callibrates his on screen charisma carefully, making Richard an easy character to like but a hard man to love. Indeed, many of the best scenes in the movie focus on the characters around Richard navigating that tension, including his wife and his daughters’ tennis coaches.

Pushing his kids to perform.

King Richard moves with a breezy energy. Reflecting its leading actor, King Richard is a movie radiates an infectious warmth. The film never really externalises its stakes, keeping its conflicts both low-key and personal. (At one point, trying to teach his daughters the important lesson to “be humble”, Richard threatens to force them to watch Cinderellatwice.) Smith works very well with his co-stars, particularly Goldwyn and Beranthal as put-upon tennis coaches who find themselves both won over and frustrated by Richard’s grand ambitions.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green keeps the movie’s tone balanced, never wringing too much melodrama from the movie’s big moments. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of King Richard is the way in which Green shoots the tennis matches. He largely avoids the standard framing of such matches, putting the camera perpendicular to the court so it can follow the volleys from one side to the other. After all, that would imply that both sides of the court were even matched, and that the game itself was something to be watched.

Instead, Green tends to shoot these matches staring down the court. He’s often looking directly at Venus and Serena as they play. When the camera movies, it glides from side to side to maintains its clear focus on its subject, rather than pivoting or zooming. Green often makes a point to include several volleys within these shots. None of these sequences are long enough to register as cinematic showmanship, but they do demonstrate the technical skill of young actors like Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton with the movie’s tennis matches.

The effect of all of this is to centre the tennis matches on Venus and Serena themselves. The audience is not watching the game as a competition between two equally matched opponents, instead these matches are a showcase for the skill and prowess of these two young women. It’s a very clever directorial choice, which underscores the idea of inevitability that runs through King Richard. The movie is built around the understanding that witnessing the ascent of these talents is the attraction, not any attempt to generate stakes.

Picking his matches.

To be fair, King Richard does stumble slightly in its meandering third act, in part as a result of this otherwise effective creative choice. After all, the structure of these sorts of stories demands an underdog victory at the climax, but it’s hard to sell that underdog story when so much of the movie is instead about inevitability. It’s to the movie’s credit that its third act largely avoids the question of whether Venus will win the first major match of her professional career, instead focusing on the tension of how Venus reacts to being thrown into this world for the first time – her father forced to watch on television, and from the stands.

Still, there’s a lot to like about King Richard. It finds a new spin on a familiar game.

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