King Richard

(3 *) A fun movie until you understand that it isn’t completely truthful.

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Original Screenplay (Zach Baylin)

Leading Actor (Will Smith)

Supporting Actress (Aunjunae Ellis)

Film Editing (Pamela Martin)

Original Song (“Be Alive”, Beyoncé/Dixon)

At a time when I wake up every morning and wonder if today is the beginning of World War III, a simple refreshing film about a family and their success is certainly welcome. My initial viewing of King Richard was that it filled that bill perfectly.

King Richard is Richard Dove Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams who, apparently even before the girls were born, had an exhaustive written plan for how these two children were to become the greatest tennis players in the world.  And, just by-the-way, they were to do that even though they were born and raised in a black ghetto family from Compton, California.  The story of their success is legendary and no-one can question their achievements nor the remarkable set of obstacles they had to overcome to get there.  Rising out of distinctly poor backgrounds, the Williams sisters became not only world-recognized tennis players, but were also among the highest earning women athletes in the world.  And the movie, King Richard, chronicles the early life of those two women, then girls, and their relationship with their father and his relentless motivation to mold them into the tennis players they would ultimately become.

There is much to like about this movie.  Will Smith, as Richard, once again demonstrates that his innate sense of timing plays well into dramatic expressions as much as it might have influenced his early rap and comedy turns.  This is his third Oscar nomination as an actor and his portrayal of determination and faith in his ‘plan’ is unwavering.  He, once again, demonstrates how he has come a long way from Men in Black and IndependenceDay. (He is so successful, that he no longer needs to work – in 2014 Forbes named him the most bankable star, having portrayed the leading actor in eight consecutive films that grossed over $100 million.  It is reported that he gave his $40 million salary for this film to all the other actors as bonuses because the studio opted to release it to streaming at the same time it was going into studios).  But despite his Hollywood success, Smith is a lot of fun to watch.

But so are a few more people in this movie.  Aunjanue Ellis, as Oracene Williams, his wife and mother to Venus and Serena, plays the honorable and duty-bound Jehovah’s-witness wife in public.  But in private, she is more than willing and able to stand up to Richard’s controlling behaviors.  There is one scene in particular where she confronts Richard and seems to have some effect.  Her passionate lecture comes from her heart and soul and shows that she is an equal partner in this plan for the sisters.  Her forceful performance also earned her an Oscar nomination.

Under-recognized are the two young women who play Venus and Serena.  Demi Singleton (Serena) was only twelve or thirteen years old when the movie was filmed and I have to believe we will be seeing more of her, perhaps even in some kind of sequel where she plays Serena again.  And then there is Saniyya Sidney who, just a year older than Singleton, plays the all important role of Venus.  This isn’t Sidney’s first movie role and her ease at being under the camera’s unforgiving eye is obvious.  What might not be obvious is how hard she had to work to learn this role.  Not only had she never played tennis before, but she is left-handed.  She spent almost a year in training, learning how to play tennis with her right-hand, like Venus.  That is remarkable discipline coming from someone her age.

Together these terrific actors paint a seemingly warm picture of a family that, while toughly disciplined, still seems loving and committed to moving up the social and economic ladder by dedicating themselves to excellence in just one very important thing – tennis.  I admit, the movie brought me to tears as I watched a father strive so hard to make his two daughters a success.  (OK, I also have two daughters, so…)

But the next day, after thinking long and hard about my King Richard experience, I felt a lot was missing.  There were just too many things that didn’t hold together and that makes me realize that, despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour length, this movie kind of cheated us by not really painting a complete story.  And, despite the screenplay Oscar nomination, I think the fault lies with the script.  Maybe it wasn’t possible to really tell this story in a movie format, I’m not sure.  But, based on my observations, and what I was able to learn about the Williams family, the movie left out more than it told us.

Much was made about King Richard’s plan for the two girls.  I recall someone in the movie saying it was 76 pages long and I read in Wikipedia that it was 85 pages.  But, really, whatever the length, who does that?  Who writes out a plan of that depth for their children?  Presumably, he didn’t even know the sex of the children which would definitely have influenced the plan.  I’m known, in my family, for being obsessed with planning – but I can’t imagine mapping out my child’s life before they are even born.  Can you presume to have that kind of understanding of what your children’s needs or wants are before they have even arrived?  And can you be so presumptuous that circumstances won’t change them, or yourself, before they even get to the point of walking?  Who can even think that they can or should have that much control over their own lives, much less someone else’s?  It is interesting that this ‘plan’ is never produced during the movie, nor was I able to find any reference to anyone who has ever seen it, except Richard.

So, OK, a bit of hyperbole.  But then there is the family dynamic in this household which, as portrayed in the movie, is just not realistic.  You would hardly know it in the movie, but, while Venus and Serena were growing up, there were three older daughters in the household.  They were Oracene’s from a previous marriage.  The oldest, Tunde, was apparently a valedictorian in her class and went on to be a doctor.  These were also accomplished young ladies.  And yet, they do not figure either in Richard’s plan, nor in this film to any real degree, except to fill in the back seat of the family VW wagon.  Are we to believe that they didn’t have any dreams? Or problems?  Or frustrations?  If Richard dedicated as much time and effort to HIS children as it appears, are we to believe there was no envy, jealousy, or frustration on the part of the other girls?  I’m sorry, but even in the best of families, that doesn’t happen – this movie basically failed to portray a real family dynamic and that leads me to wonder how real the biography is?

The relationship between Venus and Serena is totally unexplored.  There is a small reference to Serena’s feelings of being left out when Richard tells her that, essentially, Venus is there just to break down the doors so Serena can bust through to become the greatest ever (which she does).  But as someone who watched, for a while, two daughters compete and interact, – and who had three competitive sisters – it seemed to me that the sibling rivalry stuff was significantly underplayed.

Oh, and as long as we are talking about families and portraying them realistically, let’s make sure we understand a few facts about King Richard.  His marriage to Oracene was his second marriage, and he had five children with his first wife.  What happened to them?  And, by the way, Richard and Oracene got divorced in 2002, just as Venus and Serena were becoming world ranked. The movie barely suggests that outcome. Eight years later Richard married Lakeisha Graham who was only a year older than Venus.  They had a son and Richard had at least two other children out of wedlock, for a total of at least ten children.  Did Richard have 85-page plans for all ten of his kids?  Probably not, so why were Venus and Serena so special?  None of that is even hinted at in this movie, so I’m a bit confused about the underlying veracity of the story and the integrity of our King.

I guess my point in all of this, is that, despite how good this film makes you feel, it is based on false premises.  Maybe the real secret to the success of Venus and Serena isn’t so much the father, as it is the women themselves.  And maybe what we really need is a movie that focuses on how they grew up to be such terrific tennis players, despite their maniacally controlling father.

In the end, this is a film you should probably watch, just because it was nominated for Best Picture and, if you don’t know anything else about it, it will make you feel good.  But I don’t think it deserves any Oscars.  And, yes, it was nominated for Best Song.  I’ve been playing that damn song over and over the last two days while I research and write this thing.  And I can tell you that it is not worth an Oscar either.  I like Beyoncé, but her heart isn’t behind this – perhaps she knows about King Richard.  Oh, and yes, the song is not only mercifully short, but it doesn’t play until the credits – one of my pet peeves about this category.

For all the above reasons, this is a very difficult film to rate, So I’ll just give it 3*.

On Netflix DVD and to Rent on Amazon Prime and multiple other services

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