King Richard (2021): Another Leap Forward in Positive Representation
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
Venus and Serena Williams are considered to be some of the best athletes to ever walk the Earth and have become positive role models to both African American and athletic communities everywhere. Which is why a biopic surrounding them was inevitable, but what makes this one different from the rest is that its focus is on their complicated father-figure rather than their personal rise to sports immortality.
Richard Williams (played by Will Smith) is a loving and protective father of his five daughters, which include future tennis stars, Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton). As Richard struggles to find an exceptional coach for his two daughters, he practices with them and pushes them to their physical limits. As soon as he finds a coach, Richard begins to worry about the success and fame running to their heads, making him wonder if his daughters will ever be respected in the world like he never was.
As I said before, this sports biopic takes a different angle than normal sports biopics as it revolves around Richard Williams rather than Venus and Serena. While we do see the normal cliches of a sports drama and their rise to stardom, their part of the story takes a backseat to focus on what a father would do in this situation. The drama comes off rather realistic, and even though this is a black family from Compton, California they are a surprisingly relatable family. Their struggles and steps they take manage to keep the children away from the gangs on the street. Two separate instances signify this point effectively, one was after Richard gets assaulted by some gang members and talks ill of his daughters. Williams tracks down the gang banger with the intent of killing him, if not for the divine intervention of a drive-by shooting. The other instance happened when social services did a welfare check on the family after a complaint was filed by the family’s neighbor. Richard gives an impassioned monologue about giving his kids tough love in order to protect them. Both moments are phenomenal insights into Richard as a complex figure.
Speaking of the complicated man of Richard Willaims, Will Smith absolutely and sincerely became the father figure. Smith showed all of the support a father would give in order for his children to become great, sacrificing all his time and energy into teaching Venus and Serena tennis and finding them a proper coach. You can also see every bit of emotion Smith put into the role, in every little glance and subtle movement; in fact, in one conversation with his onscreen wife, you can see all of his thoughts and fears running behind his eyes. But it is also not hard to say that Richard was afraid that the success might get to their heads, so he constantly tried to keep them grounded and humble about their talents and hard work. He would even skip practice on some days to either spend time with family or study school work. This is a father that knows his kids will become legendary, but he wants his kids to respect the legend so that others will respect them.
Will Smith is not the only actor giving it his all, as the entire supporting cast gives phenomenal performances. From the child actresses that play Venus and Serena to, in particular, Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci and Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi Williams, the mother of the Williams family. Ellis gives a stellar performance as the compassionately stern yet gentle mother figure, calling out Richard on his BS whenever he lets fear cloud his judgment. Whether it be when he pulls their daughters out of junior league tennis or swap coaches, she is able to course correct him and allow Venus and Serena to be given a choice. However, Bernthal really breaks his normal tough guy typecasting with Jon Macci. Even though Macci does not have much depth to his character, he does bring out more range of his acting talent than many of us initially thought.
King Richard may be more of a slow burn compared to other sports biopics, but it is nonetheless effective. Bringing out realistic family drama and giving weight to what African Americans would be experiencing in both a low class neighborhood and journeying to be some of the greatest athletes to ever walk the Earth. Will Smith absolutely commands the screen and rightfully won the Best Actor Oscar, just a shame that his achievement was overshadowed by an impulsive slap. The rest of the supporting cast, particularly Aunjanue Ellis and Jon Bernthal, are able to stand with Smith’s acting ability and really sell how compelling the story truly is. Involving a story with a positive black role model is quite lacking these days, but King Richard is able to have that break many stereotypes while maintaining the complexity of its titular character; effectively making this film a future classic for both film goers and future filmmakers.