Michelangelo’s belief that every block of stone inherently contains the sculpture waiting to be revealed by the artist’s hand is an oft used parenting metaphor. But Richard Williams, father to tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, appeared to have taken that dictum and doubled down on it, outlining a comprehensive strategy to turn his daughters into athletic superstars. Forget better living through chemistry, this is better parenting through engineering, or at least that is the strongest takeaway from director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s biopic King Richard, which places the paterfamilias at the center of the Williams sister’s success.
It’s hard to argue against the results, but the focus on the tireless commitment of Richard (Smith) in carving out the lives of his daughters has the effect of rendering Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) as automatons. They’re merely subjects in King Richard’s court, and clever puns notwithstanding, their lack of agency does the film no favors. An obstinate hustler obsessed with lifting his daughters out of Compton, Calif., Richard hands out fliers to potential investors and coaches at lily-white Beverly Hills country clubs, his browbeating finding success first with tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn) and subsequently Rick Macci (Bernthal, elevating exasperation to an art form). From training on cracked surfaces in the rain, harassed by gang members, to training on the red clay in posh environments, harassed by bigots, Richard repeatedly instills the lessons of his playbook: resilience, humility, and above all having fun, a question he repeatedly asks the girls, as if their future was not already a forgone conclusion in his mind.
The interplay of setback and triumph of the sports film genre, here informed by both racial and socioeconomic concerns, is comfortably familiar, and Green, with writer Zach Baylin, never met a tennis serve/time transition they didn’t run with, but they keep their gaze on Papa Williams and his provocative eccentricities, dutifully lionizing the man as good as any royal biographer. There is one scene, toward the end of the film, where he gets a dressing down from his wife, Oracene (Ellis), which exposes, finally, some interesting complexities to his character. Why the filmmakers held those cards back is clear, but it’s too little, too late. Smith’s work here is quite effective; he expresses Williams’ temerity with an easygoing slyness that is seductive enough to (briefly) look past problematic questions of exploitation. It’s hard not to speculate why Smith was drawn to the role of this determined yet loving father whose children would never consider becoming emancipated minors, but only his analyst – or auditor – knows for sure.
In theaters and available on HBO Max now.
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