by Paul Deeter
When I was doing research for this review, and spending some time checking the validity of this fine sports Cinderella film, I tossed around a few ideas for the title. One of the terms that came up in my mind was the familiar one "black excellence" which is something that the film celebrates both off and on the court with its young protagonists. The idea of black excellence however, even in the perspective of a film focused on characters overcoming adversity (as the young subjects at center did) is a flawed concept. Again I tossed the idea around in my head of using the term black excellence in the title but I decided against it. A fantastic Forbes article by Janice Gassam Asare titled 'Our Obsession with Black Excellence is Harming Black People' talks about the high standards set against black people to succeed to meet the respect and fame expected for non-POC figures. The article goes on to state...exceptionalism encourages Black people to sacrifice their health, mental wellbeing and welfare for the sake of greatness. Black excellence is an unreachable peak—nothing is ever good enough. And what happens to the Black people that society does not recognize as excellent? The single parent working multiple jobs to provide for their family or the frontline worker struggling to make ends meet may not be deemed exceptional in our society, but they are. The last sentence here is important to what I think the film King Richard portrays at its core. Is black excellence defined by the story of the two tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams working their way to fame despite said peak being unreachable? Well King Richards as its title suggests is not just a film of the crown so rightfully achieved by the two girls after years of training; its a movie about the father that worked from his core to make that happen.
King Richards is a 2021 release with superstar Will Smith at the helm, a star that draws eyes to the screen no matter what film he's starring in. Will Smith's work on this film both behind and on screen is evident in strides here with his great performance (no surprise there) as Richard Williams along with his quiet work producing as well. Will Smith has worked decades of comedy and action far before he started taking more serious roles and stirring attention from critics and the Academy as well. In 2006 his portrayal of a single-unemployed father trying to make do for his son in The Pursuit of Happyness got multiple nominations and established him as a good father-figure trope for future roles including this one. Will Smith is also a famous Dad in real life, raising with the help of Jaden Pinkett Smith two talented kids: Jaden and Willow (both performers now.) Will Smith transitioned from the badass and likeable action star, to the badass and likeable father we appreciate on a different level.
By titling a story of the father of two super athletes with the royalty of King before his name, this film is an argument that the top brass here is not the girls but the dad. Which isn't fair even as I write it. Serena and Vanessa are both incredible athletes, and the film doesn't avoid celebrating their accomplishments and wins on the court along with their relationship to their siblings (five daughters in all.) But early career American director Reinaldo Marcus Green's work with Smith here leans heavily into the concept that the struggle of rising to the top from next to nothing isn't just a personal game. Richard talks to his girls before practicing them in the rain or as early as 6AM, that his life included hiding from the Klan, and suffering from poverty. He instills his struggle onto them almost cruelly; at one point he pulls over and tries to leave them to walk home in the ghetto and drive away. He's stubborn, and he's harsh and boisterous when it comes to meeting sponsors and future coaches, and rightfully so. He starts advertising for them before they're even ten years old. He's their first coach, and King Richards makes a point of saying he's kind of their only consistent coach for life.
Luckily, the film fairly takes to broadening that angle from a few different montages, including when only one sister gets picked up by an esteemed coach and the mother takes on to her responsibility to train the other. It would be problematic of this movie to say that the success of two young female athletes is almost entirely due to a hardworking boots on the ground father. The film celebrates the relationship between mother and daughters and also shows how tight the sisters are with each other, even when one sister (Tunde) is left to live in Compton after the rest of the family moves to Florida. They all have their strengths and pride and love for each other. It's a great film when it doesn't overshadow the idea of two prodigies among a childhood of five girls. I can only imagine that some sibling rivalry would stir among brothers or sisters of young athletes, but the film never goes there. This is interesting and makes me wonder what did get fictionalized or brushed under the rug from the final feature. Screen Rant covers some of the differences from reality to reel-ality in this feature.
To my surprise (as the article states) there was a realness to a lot of the struggle specifically with gang violence from their neighborhood from the early days. It's interesting and quite an accomplishment that these young girls had to face the harassments they did from some of the seedier folks they lived among. The movie doesn't shy away from the violence and even almost veers into a darkness that Richard finds himself in when he almost reacts back with as much violence as they threaten him with. The article also goes deep into the lows of the family and the faults of the father. I'd suppose my main criticism of this film is that Richards sits high among his throne of respect in this film, even as he turns down big offers over his personal pride and convictions. In a later scene Richard's wife argues that Richard is brought down by his own ego and inflated need to do right by his girls. The idea of them not faltering to the black excellence image they need to exist in to be relevant in the sports world. Its this work he does as they age that stumps the ability for other coaches to do right by them; he's never not the Dad from the bleachers.
King Richard is undeniably a traditional sports film, with an untraditional center figure. It's not entirely fair, and seems heavily to depend on the superhero dad that Richard tries to be. Smith does fantastically though, as do every actor in his family. Its a film that balances many ideas of society's high standards for black stardom while also giving the audience the satisfaction of the wins they earn. I circle back to the Asare article and the line: "The single parent working multiple jobs to provide for their family or the frontline worker struggling to make ends meet may not be deemed exceptional in our society, but they are. " There's a film here that takes the behind the scenes approach Will Smith is so proud of in his own life; this is a film about the many complexities of black excellence, and that should be celebrated.