starring Will Smith, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn, Dylan McDermott
written by Zach Baylin
directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
by Walter Chaw You know what this movie is. You know the major beats, you know the resolution, and in those rare instances when something happens you maybe don't expect, you know immediately how it will resolve. There is no surprise to movies like Reinaldo Marcus Green's King Richard by design, not misstep--they are by their nature for the least discriminating audience, the ones desperate to avoid challenge, thinking, reconsideration, discomfort. It is Taco Bell on vacation. You go there for a reason and none of it has to do with the quality of the food. It's the disgusting robe you've had since college that your wife begs you to throw away, but you don't. King Richard is garbage that people like, machine-extruded pap, hardwired and cynically engineered to garner a certain level of prestige. It's the uplift picture multiplied by a minority voice. It’s ugly manipulation, more horse-betting than art--though the gamblers would argue that what they do is science rather than just venal calculation.
Richard Williams (Will Smith) is a father of at least five, many biologically, some maybe not? The five daughters who live with him and his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), include Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) Williams--get it? Right? The tennis players, emphasis on "the," as in two of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport. (In the case of Serena, arguably the greatest athlete of all time in any discipline.) There will be a happy ending, unless King Richard does something very interesting and allows these characters to have nuance or shading, but as the film exists with the fulsome blessing of the Williams family, expect a hagiography. And a hagiography you shall receive. Richard has a plan, you see; he tells everyone. It's seventy pages long. He wrote it before his daughters--no, not them, Venus and Serena--were even born. It's a recipe for material success and sporting glory but, more specifically, it's his bid to show the haters that Richard made something with his life and was right all along. After like 150 hours of this shit (at least 30 of those the same shot of a racquet hitting a ball), there's a title card containing a single sentence saying that Richard predicted everything. Richard, see, is vindicated for Marv Marinovich-ing the shit out of his daughters and getting away with it. It's okay, though, because level-headed Oracene, in her key moment, takes credit for Serena's serve.
I'm interested in exactly one character in this venal mess and it's the neighbour across the street who calls Child Protective Services on Richard for making Serena and Venus practice in the rain, even though her own daughter is apparently a prostitute. This leads to a scene where CPS are doing their job, along with the police, who have come to investigate the report, at a house in Compton where it's been established they can't get social services to appear. The CPS scene is manufactured to vilify a white woman trying to protect children from the kind of abusive home Richard is always railing about when he vows that his daughters will not end up on the streets where they live. King Richard is simultaneously aspirational and self-loathing. I'm interested in the neighbour character because she's not wrong and seems motivated largely by personal tragedy. She recognizes the danger of pushing children into molds designed for them before their birth. King Richard is left off the hook for all of it because there are lots of scenes where the children, Venus and Serena, confirm that his plan is their plan, too, and more, they're actually more ambitious than Richard. See? Richard is the voice of moderation here, without whom Venus and Serena would have Jennifer Capriati'd out of the game before they could be the best of the best of all-time, ever.
There's a particularly loathsome moment where Richard plans to murder the neighbourhood tough, and a random drive-by serendipitously takes care of the problem for him. There's no follow-up to this, just the wife's smirking approval of how well Richard can take a punch. Did he steal the gun from work? Wasn't it missed? Why aren't the girls, especially the one threatened with gang rape, wondering why they're able to use the neighbourhood courts now without being molested? There's a scene missing, and it's an important one. The two white coaches Richard convinces to help out (Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal in a Prince Valiant wig) are foils for Richard's wisdom--and one scene in which Richard keeps interfering with a free training session he's begged for and received is especially grating because it robs everyone else of volition in the face of Richard's constant needling. Richard will brook no opposition to his vision for his daughters and how they will avenge the wrongs the world has done to him; King Richard is the sanctification of an essentially loathsome, broken little man who got what he wanted with the help of everyone else. This is what good parents do in this world, and all the lip service the film pays to how corrupt and evil the "tennis parents" are in pushing their kids into positions they don't want to be in is shown to be hollow and patronizing. It's bad when other people do it, genius and hustle when Richard does it. While I have no doubt that Venus and Serena materialized whole cloth, I do have doubts that Richard did it all by his lonesome with his megalomania and the fucking manifesto he wrote for his children.