Criticism of "King Richard": the father holds court

The climactic scenes of “King Richard” take place in 1994, as 14-year-old Venus Williams in her second professional tennis match faces A...


The climactic scenes of “King Richard” take place in 1994, as 14-year-old Venus Williams in her second professional tennis match faces Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, at the time the highest ranked player in the world. If you don’t know the result, you might want to refrain from searching on Google. And even if you remember the game vividly, you might find yourself holding your breath and full of conflicting emotions as you watch director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s skillful and suspenseful cover.

You probably know what happened next. Venus and her younger sister Serena have dominated and transformed women’s tennis, together winning 30 Grand Slam singles titles (plus 14 team doubles titles) and opening the sport to aspiring champions from all walks of life. (They are credited as executive producers of this film.) You may also know that these achievements fulfilled an ambition that their father, Richard Williams, had conceived before the birth of Venus and Serena.

In the years of their rise, he was a well-known figure, often described with words like “controversial”, “outspoken” and “provocateur”. “King Richard” is in part meant to save Williams from the condescension of such adjectives, to paint a compelling and detailed picture of a family – an official portrait, one might say – on their way to fame and fortune.

In modern Hollywood terms, the film could best be described as a two-for-one superhero origin story, in which Venus (Saniyya Sidney) takes control of her powers as Serena (Demi Singleton) begins to understand her own. extraordinary potential, each aided by a wise and cunning mentor. But it’s fundamentally – and I would say wonderfully – old-fashioned entertainment, a sports drama that’s also an engaging and socially alert story of persistence and the pursuit of excellence on the rise.

It is also a marriage story. When we first meet them in the early 1990s, Richard (Will Smith) and his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), live with five daughters in a modest bungalow-style house in Compton, California. He works at night as a security guard. , and she is a nurse. Their common vocation, however, the company which is at the base of their sometimes stormy partnership, are their children.

It’s a daunting task: raising confident and successful black girls in a world that is determined to underestimate and underestimate them. Tennis, which Richard chose in part for its whiteness and exclusivity, is only part of the program.

The children – Tunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew), Lyndrea (Layla Crawford) and Isha (Daniele Lawson), as well as Venus and Serena – lead very structured and intensely supervised lives. (A disapproving neighbor calls the authorities, convinced that Richard and Oracene are too hard on girls.) It’s partly protective, a way to keep them away from what Richard grimly calls “those streets” – a threat posed by thugs. who pester Richard and the girls during workouts – but that also reflects his temper and philosophy.

He enjoys slogans and lessons, at one point forcing the family to watch Disney’s “Cinderella” to teach the importance of humility. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is one of his favorite mottos. There is nothing haphazard or sloppy about “King Richard”, and he succeeds because he has a clear idea of ​​what he wants to accomplish. The script, by Zach Baylin, is shamelessly cheesy at times – if you had a drink every time the Williams sisters say “yes, daddy,” you’ll pass out before Venus wins her first junior game – but the heat and the verve of the cast make sentimentality feel won.

Smith, digging into Williams’ Louisiana accent and playful sense of humor, plays the character as a kind of soul mate – a charmer with a strategy. The white men who dominate the tennis world see it primarily as someone to repel or date. Later, faced with the undeniable and potentially lucrative fact of Venus’ talent, they are surprised to find that Richard’s agenda doesn’t always match theirs. Against the advice of two high-level coaches, he withdraws Venus from the junior tournament circuit. He isn’t convinced by agents, sneaker executives and the like who claim to have his daughters’ best interests at heart.

They see him, sometimes affectionately, as stubborn and unreasonable, but he’s usually right. The film’s treatment of trainers Paul Cohen (a suave and tanned Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (a maniacal, mustached Jon Bernthal) is graceful and skeptical. They are neither saviors nor villains, but rather men whose participation in the tennis system limits their prospects. (White tennis parents, on the other hand, are a pretty awful bunch, encouraging their kids to cheat and berating them when they lose.) Coaches can see the potential of Venus and Serena as athletes, but only within the parameters of a status quo that the sisters will soon demolish.

This too is part of Richard’s plan. But if “King Richard” was just a simplified chronicle of his triumph – if there wasn’t at least a hint of irony in the title – it wouldn’t be convincing. Smith shows his usual and disarmingly tactical self-deprecating skill, but it’s Ellis and Sidney who provide the necessary complexity. Venus, after all, is central to the narrative: it’s not just her career, but also her growing independence and self-awareness that keeps us interested in what happens next.

And it’s Oracene who is the film’s crucial internal critic, the person who can challenge Richard’s catchphrases, bring him back to earth, and point out his flaws. Sometimes it can feel too heavy. Fairly late in the film, she talks to Richard about his failed business and the children he had with other women – all this new information for the viewer, none of it was ever mentioned again. The scene isn’t powerful because it exhibits less than admirable aspects of Richard’s character, but because it shows just how raw, messy, and difficult a seemingly functional and harmonious marriage can be. (It may also predict Richard and Oracene’s eventual divorce in 2002.)

In the best Hollywood tradition, “King Richard” arouses a lot of emotion while remaining dynamic and engaging. It is serious but rarely heavy. Richard’s advice to his daughters when they step onto the pitch is to have fun, and Green (whose credits include the awesome “Monsters and men”) takes this wisdom to heart. This one is a winner.

king richard
Classified PG-13. Brief violence, and a few swear words and racist insults. Duration: 2 hours 18 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Criticism of "King Richard": the father holds court
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