Tuesday, November 9, 2021


 by Rob DiCristino

Just give Will Smith an Oscar so we can all move on.

Consider, if you will, the following question: What “earns” one an Academy Award? The Hollywood prom has never exactly been a meritocracy, and the annals of cinema are littered with deserving productions that were ignored in favor of whatever more palatable or crowd-pleasing mainstream goop was presented half-heartedly in any given year. They occasionally get it “right,” of course, and they sometimes make up for poor judgment with the “apology Oscar” years later. But, again, how do we account for taste? How do we decide who’s turn it is? How do we decide which studio did just the right amount of promotional work? Who held the best party? Who’s a flash in the pan, and who has real staying power? Which octogenarian thespian has the fewest performances to go? Though bookmakers are already at work predicting whose caucasian male jawline would look best under the stage lights of whichever train station smoker’s lounge the Oscars will be held in next year, the process still lacks a hard, quantifiable formula.
And so for as exhausting as it is to see Will Smith back on our screens in a Serious Drama in which he portrays a Complex Protagonist with a Transformative Appearance and/or Accent, we have to start asking ourselves just how many more Bad Boys sequels we’re willing to sacrifice before we give the poor man the hardware he so clearly desires. Just minutes into King Richard, Smith is already overwhelming us with his portrayal of Richard Williams, the twentieth century’s most notorious sports dad: His awkward gait, Shreveport drawl, and huckster wit are distracting at first, as if Smith is again determined to convince his audience that he is anything less than the most charismatic movie star of his generation. Slowly, though, we’re drawn in. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green montages Williams’ quest to convince local tennis pros that his daughters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), have enough raw talent to justify free professional lessons. It’s a hard sell, but for Williams, it’s just a matter of time.

He’s right, of course, eventually convincing country club pro Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to take Venus under his wing. That leads to junior competitions and a relocation to Florida, where Hall of Famer Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) runs a prestigious training academy. At every turn, though, Williams resists the immediate reward of sponsorship deals and tournament purses, instead choosing to guard his daughters against would-be predators like talent agent Will Hodges (Dylan McDermott) and even removing Venus from amateur competition until he decides she’s ready to turn pro. Williams puts family and education first, he insists, but it soon becomes clear to his wife (Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi) that he’s letting his personal demons poison his judgment, that the axes he’s grinding against racism and class disparity are destroying his daughters’ opportunity for the very greatness he insists they are destined to achieve. Is this really about Venus and Serena, or is their father manipulating them for his own purposes?
Despite Smith’s engaging performance and Green’s crisp, verite direction, it’s never made entirely clear. Zach Baylin’s screenplay resists a strong thesis statement about its subject, alternately portraying him as a clairvoyant savant and a street hustler as required by the moment. We’re invited to marvel at his grit as he defends his daughters’ virtue against Compton thugs and Nike executives alike, but then there’s that creeping tendency toward self-aggrandizement brought to the fore in Brandi’s fierce tirade over his selfishness, deception, and extra-marital indiscretions. His mercurial temper is triggered at random, a frustrating roadblock for any and all who put their faith in his grand design. This isn’t necessarily bad screenwriting, of course — many well-crafted characters are inherent contradictions whose personal incongruities make their journeys all the more interesting. In this case, though, we’re presented with a character who seems to succeed in spite of himself and then told that it was all meant to be.
Luckily, King Richard sports a number of winning bright spots, including Saniyya Sidney’s understated turn as the future world champion. The film’s climactic match rests on her shoulders, of course, and Green gives her the necessary space for a mini story arc of her own. Demi Singleton shines as well, subtly embodying both Serena’s sisterly pride and nagging urge for independent glory. There’s a vulnerability and poise to all five Williams sisters’ performances, in fact, that make plotlines that should have been excised — like the Child Services check instigated by a nosy neighbor or Richard’s ill-advised foray into street vengeance — a bit more tolerable. We never stray too far from Smith, though, and we again find ourselves wondering if November dramas like King Richard would even exist if not for the tantalizing prospect of Oscar glory. It’s a well-crafted but ultimately forgettable biopic that fails to truly interrogate its subject matter. It might earn Will Smith an Oscar, though, and isn’t that what cinema is all about?

King Richard
hits theaters on November 19th.


  1. Honest question, is this film worth it or insufferable Oscar bait?

    1. I’ve seen a lot worse. The performance is legitimately interesting, and it’s well made, but the screenplay is gutless fluff.

  2. Copy that. Thank you. Still patiently waiting on that Smith/Cruise action/comedy.