The sports biopic is one of the most formulaic subgenres in all of film. An absolute metric fuck ton of these movies follow a certain path, with initial success, slumps, redemption arcs, and a healthy dose of doubters, some of them outright racist if the protagonist is a minority.
So when it was announced that there would be a biopic about Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time, one might be forgiven for being cautious. Even when it was learned that the film would be more about their father, Richard, than themselves, there was room for skepticism. The Williams Sisters, aside from their tremendous skill on the court, are excellent businesswomen and brand managers, so you could easily presume that King Richard might devolve into self-indulgence. Even in the trailer there was a potential red flag in Will Smith as Richard Williams declaring that he’s raising the “next two” Michael Jordans in Venus and Serena, as critical thought could interpret the swagger in that line reading as a projection of Smith’s own efforts to promote Jaden and Willow.
But then, something odd happened on the way to the cliché factory. Nearly every trap of the sports movie was averted. A nuanced story emerged, with very little focus on Venus or Serena’s greatness, with major sponsorships largely eschewed (there are several scenes about NOT signing brand deals as soon as they’re offered). Instead, we were given a completely unexpected product, capitalizing on the elite charisma of its lead, while still allowing room for the rest of the ensemble to shine. And just as impressively, a salient meta point is made without relying on the tired elements that far too many films of its ilk have treated as a crutch, resulting in one of the most surprising and satisfying movies of its kind in recent memory.
There are two elements right off the bat that instantly amazed me about this film, simply from a storytelling standpoint. The first is that this really is not a film about Venus and Serena, even though they served as Executive Producers. In a welcome change of pace, the film gives its viewers the credit to know the heights that the Williams Sisters have reached in their careers, with Serena widely considered the greatest to ever handle a racket. As such, their accomplishments are treated as read, with the chronology of the film only going as far as Venus’ professional debut. The sisters truly do treat this as a film about their father, not them. And further to their credit, Richard Williams is still alive, so he’s free to dispute anything that it brings up. Overall, the movie has received some criticism – warranted, I’ll grant – for not delving too deeply into Richard’s flaws as a person, including the messy details of his first marriage. But the fact that the script is willing to show any flaws at all is in itself an achievement, because it would be so easy to whitewash his past and make this movie a straight up praise peace. And yet it didn’t. We do see the shadier sides of Richard’s life within the context of raising his daughters (delivered with, and sometimes in spite of, Will Smith’s undeniable charm), and there’s enough of it that I feel anyone interested enough to learn about all the warts can use this film as a firm starting point.
The second is that despite the focus on Richard, this movie is very much a family affair. Will Smith dominates the proceedings, and the story is ostensibly about his plan to raise the sisters as champions, but a good deal of attention is given to the rest of the Williams-Price clan. Aunjanue Ellis plays Brandy Price, Richard’s second wife, and she even steals a few scenes from the A-lister, to the point that she’s getting serious consideration for Best Supporting Actress. Meanwhile, although Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively) are the eventual stars, their step-sisters (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew, Danielle Lawson, and Layla Crawford) are ever-present, and have near-equal billing for a good chunk of the action. The bulk of the first act is basically an even split between Richard training Venus and Serena and also protecting teenage Tunde Price from a gang member harassing her.
This could very easily have been a Best Actor Showcase just for Will Smith. He’s had his share of good, bad, and great roles, but he’s not really courted the Academy over the last 15 years; his last nomination was for The Pursuit of Happyness, and before that it was Ali. Smith largely chooses roles based on whether or not he thinks the film will be financially successful rather than any potential awards prestige, but it is telling that since his last nomination, only Seven Pounds, Concussion, and Collateral Beauty have even attempted to get some hardware. The argument that he’s due for the attention is a pretty easy one to make, and yet, director Reinaldo Marcus Green (who helmed the spectacular Monsters and Men) and screenwriter Zach Baylin make sure that this isn’t just about Richard or his input on his daughters’ future success. Not only is the whole family thematically important, the actors all get their chances to shine, and game supporting roles from Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal exist as more than just opportunities to tee up Oscar bait dialogue (save for that “two Michael Jordans” line).
As for Smith’s actual performance, I was hesitant at first. The film opens with him trying to sell tennis coaches on giving free lessons to Venus and Serena, and the pitch is so heavy-handed that it feels like it’s a combination of Happyness and Hitch, equal parts overconfident and desperate. Also, the heavy Louisiana accent he affects can be a touch off-putting. Thankfully, the latter issue is resolved by archival footage of the real Richard during the credits, showing that Smith’s dialect was actually fairly accurate. Meanwhile, the braggadocio does grow on you and makes sense as a core trait of the character as the film wears on. A lot of times it reminded me of my step-father’s description of himself as a “benevolent despot” in his parenting style, meaning that he was a nice guy at heart, but he would also push you to your limits and would rarely feel sorry for you when you fell short because he knew what you were capable of.
There are bits that don’t exactly work, like having Jennifer Capriati (Jessica Wacnik) as a convenient deus ex machina for all of Richard’s fears of the girls becoming too famous too fast. Similarly, for all of Richard’s talk about this massive, 78-page plan for Venus and Serena’s success, we never once see it, or any written record of his master scheme, even though every action he takes is allegedly in service of sticking to this grand design. We don’t have to read the whole thing, but a few glances now and again or a ticked box next to something important once in a while would have aided the narrative.
But still, the film is largely a success because of the sneaky metaphor it gets across in its presentation. There’s a bit of heavy-handed messaging on the racial front because there were (and still are) subtle and overt examples of racism in the Williams Sisters’ careers. In the film, this is best represented by a conversation Richard and coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn) have at a country club with the ownership, where the suits note how surprised they are by Venus and Serena’s success. This leads to an aggressive diatribe about the perceived slight from Richard, because in his mind (most likely wholly accurate), the surprise is that it’s two black girls from Compton doing this well, rather than wealthy white girls who are raised in this environment.
It’s a sly bit of messaging not just on the larger race issue, but of the film itself. Richard’s mission is that his children don’t end up as “just another dumb” n-word (he’s done it before, but growing up with his very clean-cut style of hip-hop, hearing Will Smith say that word will never not feel shocking), and I can already see his monologue towards social services about how he does work his kids too hard to make sure that police will never show up at his house to tell him they were shot in a botched robbery or something being played during next year’s Oscars telecast. It’s yet another testament to just how hard people in poor, underserved communities (especially minority ones) have to work just to make it off the bottom rung, and the scene itself shows the catch-22 of that life, as going to great lengths to get even a chance at a better life can so quickly be interpreted as a threat in and of itself.
But as I said, in a larger context, the metaphor also works for the actual product on the screen. Based on advance press, the trailer, and just the normal habits of Hollywood during Awards Season, this film could effortlessly have been dismissed as just another shameless bit of Oscar bait housed in a standard-issue sports biopic. But like Venus and Serena themselves, with Richard standing behind them, the film actually works on a few levels because it goes out of its way to show that it’s NOT like all the others, and that it can be ultimately foolish to make such presumptions based on precedent and subject matter. I admit when I saw the teasers, I was cautiously optimistic, mostly because I’ve watched Venus and Serena’s entire careers, so there was at least a curiosity as to what happened before they took the world by storm. But I was certainly prepared for – if not outright anticipating – a trope fest. Instead, there was nuance, solid messaging, and an unexpected amount of focus away from the normal trappings of the genre. Just like the players themselves, the origin of the good work shouldn’t surprise you, only that we were so comfortable with the status quo for so long that we’re conditioned to bristle at anything new.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the most surprising movie you’ve seen recently? Do you play tennis, and if so, were the tennis action scenes convincing? Let me know!
7 thoughts on “Holding Court – King Richard”