The Oscars love conspicuous acting. The harder it feels like an actor is working, the more awards voters seem love it. That’s the only conclusion I can draw from the Oscar buzz around Will Smith’s performance as Venus and Serena Williams’ father in the new movie King Richard. It’s not a great performance, but it’s certainly a big one. Almost as if Will Smith got so tired of being overlooked (he was nominated for The Pursuit Of Happyness and Ali) that he figured he’d better shout to be heard. It is hard to fault this logic based on the actors who actually have won Oscars lately.
An odd thing happens when you watch the first five minutes of King Richard, or even the trailer. My first thought, and the friends I’ve spoken to had the same reaction, was Wow, Will Smith is really hamming this up, isn’t he? Then I wondered, Well, maybe the real Richard Williams actually sounded like this, and had to pull up some clips. Based on what I found, the real Richard Williams didn’t sound like that, or at least felt like a much more subdued version of whatever Foghorn Leghorn-meets-Bagger-Vance thing Will Smith is doing in King Richard. Working through a scraggly beard and dirty teeth, Smith turns “heard” becomes “hoid,” “work” into “woik,” and always pluralizes words like “people” and “feet,” become “peoples” and “feets.” But hey, maybe that’s just what Oscar performances are now; odd, obvious dramatic choices that take 10 or 15 minutes of screen time to get used to. Gosh, he sure is ACTING, isn’t he?
Eventually, you do get used to his collection of conspicuous affectations. Will Smith is never a bad actor even if in this case he is sort of an obnoxious one. Yet King Richard‘s story raises even bigger questions. Namely, are we now living in the age of the vanity biopic?
King Richard, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, Monsters and Men) with a script by Zach Baylin, executive produced by three of the Williams sisters, is the slickest exercise in image management I’ve seen since Straight Outta Compton. King Richard is essentially The Pursuit Of Happyness with tennis, the supposedly-true tale of a kooky genius who was convinced he was destined for greatness (either as the father of tennis stars or as a rich stockbroker) and pursued it doggedly, unconventionally, refusing to listen to all the people who told him it could never work until it finally did. And in both cases, the selling of life rights to the movie you’re now watching is the ultimate trophy of success. The question isn’t so much “how much of this story is just bullshit mythmaking” (most of it, I’m guessing) but what’s new here? What insight did we gain from all this rising and grinding?
If you were looking for a glimpse into the personalities of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis athletes of all time, you will be thrilled to learn that, according to King Richard, they played tennis a lot. They were mostly just charming, happy-go-lucky children, they always listened to their parents and never fought. Never got jealous of each other! Not even once! Even if Straight Outta Compton was equally an unabashed infomercial for all things Ice Cube as King Richard is for all things Williams family, it’s a bit more interesting to see Cube recording “F*ck Tha Police” than it is to see the Williams sisters hit tennis balls.
King Richard is content, mostly, to shine a flattering light on things we already know while avoiding the truly interesting questions. The film positions Richard Williams as simultaneously the ultimate psychotically-driven sports parent (a category with many historical examples, from Earl Woods to Marv Marinovich) and the anti-psychotically-driven sports parent. He was a psycho, but for making sure his children didn’t burn out! The signature moment in this telling comes basically verbatim from the real-life incident in which an interviewer asks Venus Williams about her confidence, and then, when he keeps pressing her, Richard Williams jumps in and cuts it off early, making the point that she’s a 14-year-old child and the guy doesn’t need to keep trying to puncture her confidence. It’s a nice moment, of Richard Williams being willing to be the asshole in the moment, for the greater good of protecting his daughter and checking a too-intrusive media.
Yet the only possible takeaway from it is “Gosh, what a great guy,” or, generously, “Gosh, what a complicated man who turned out to be right all along. You might not want to live with him but he sure knew how to raise tennis stars!”
There’s a thornier question here, and maybe a uniquely American one, about whether life is really something you can “win” or “lose” — about whether good parenting is designed to set your children up for “success” or to create happy, interesting, compassionate children. King Richard is far too withholding of Venus and Serena Williams’s images to ever explore this in any meaningful way. There’s one lone scene in which Aunjanue Ellis, in a solidly understated performance as the girls’ mother, Oracene Williams, calls Richard to the carpet for his glory hogging, as well as revealing his relative lack of attention towards his five children from a previous marriage. Yet this line of inquiry vanishes as quickly as it appears, and I only know the number of Williams’ other kids because I looked it up on Wikipedia afterward.
Jennifer Capriati, meanwhile, is held up as the ultimate example of When Sports Parenting Goes Wrong. The evidence for this is her arrest as a teenager (for shoplifting and pot) and the fact that she ended up winning fewer tournaments. But… maybe she was happy? What, other than tennis, was the difference between Capriati and the Williamses? That King Richard never even pays cursory lip service to these kinds of questions tells you a lot about its purpose and its built-in blind spots. It has the same kind of shark-eyed single-mindedness that has made people wonder if Will Smith is a Scientologist.
King Richard is another kooky success story that never really interrogates what it means to be successful. Richard Williams wrote up an 80-page business plan! He made his daughters practice in the rain! What an unconventional genius! In one scene, Richard Williams confronts CPS officers who have shown up at the home thanks to a call from a concerned neighbor. Williams has the kids spell hard words and prove the foreign languages they speak and the neighbor is written off as a buttinsky and a hater. But was she really the bad guy in this scenario? In any story not told so firmly from the perspective of the Williams family, we might actually be able to explore that further.