dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green
You know, I don’t want to talk about the obvious thing, at least not yet.
I did watch this flick, this long-arsed flick well before those infamous Oscars. And I remember wondering out loud “why does Will Smith like playing these boorish, selfish, blindly stubborn jerk fathers?”
People, we might have an answer.
He previously played the lead (when he was previously yearning for an Oscar) in a biopic about a homeless guy with a kid who somehow goes from sleeping on the floor of a public New York bathroom (with kid in tow) to be a millionaire stock broker because he someone managed to convince a guy that solving a Rubik’s cube meant he would be great at trading. That flick was called The Pursuit of Happyness. That also had remarkably tone-deaf scenes where a monster father is acting abusively towards his kid, but they try to ‘lighten’ the mood with a jaunty soundtrack.
This, well, this is another order of awfulness, and it too is based on a real person.
Then of course there’s the staggering idea that the real hero in Venus and Serena Williams’ rise to the top of the tennis world is really the story of how their monstrous father made it all happen.
Without him… what? The flick never really actually proves what seems like its reason for existing. Sure, there are scenes where Richard Williams, the king of the title, refuses to change his mind about something or farts loudly during a meeting to show how unimpressed he is with what’s being offered, but it never clearly actually proves what it wants to prove: that the only reason Venus or Serena became champions is because King Richard made it so.
It’s quite baffling to me. I honestly don’t know why people thought the character we want to spend time with is the arsehole dad, and not the sisters themselves. As another example, Smith years ago starred in yet another biopic, being Ali, about the greatest boxer of all time, being Muhammed Ali. That film was about Ali’s life, various fights, his friendship with Malcolm X and the issues within the Nation of Islam, a couple of his marriages, his conviction from refusing to fight in Vietnam, regaining the heavyweight title; it covered a lot of ground.
It certainly wasn’t all about his alcoholic, belligerent dad. He gets a few scenes, played as he is by the great Giancarlo Esposito, but 90 per cent of the flick is not trying to get us to believe that the only reason Ali became the greatest of all time is because his dad bullied him and everyone else into it.
But a story about two of the greatest female tennis players of all time? Nah, surely they’re just passengers on someone else’s life journey.
King Richard is also, wow, such a piece of work. A man who is convinced that he will make champions out of his kids, but who needs to make sure that they don’t forget two things: that he is the only one that can be right in any argument, and that they should stay humble.
He doesn’t have to stay humble, they do.
He also wants them to toughen up, so he moves the family to Compton, so that they don’t get too comfortable. While there, in between training his children, despite being neither good at tennis or training, he also works as a security guard. As such, it gives him access to fire arms.
Which is handy when he decides he’s going to murder a guy who humiliates him in a physical assault(?) Oh, what a shame, someone comes along and murders that guy before Richard can get a chance to do it.
Oh well, back to yelling at his family. And what a happy family it is. Yes, this family is the happy one. Not the previous one that he had, or the one after this family, once he divorces this long suffering wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) and marries a grocery store clerk, nor the other women he apparently had kids with. I mean, he’s the real deal, but none of what I’m referring to here is in the film, for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on…
No, this modern day Mother Theresa, this saint that walks among us, he has a plan, and a man with a plan cannot be gainsaid. He is going to yell at people both within and outside of his family until his two daughters are tennis champions. I cannot tell you how painful I find those aspects of this movie. I am sure we have a lot of it in Australia, but I guess, if it’s a religion here, sport is a cult in the States, where parents yelling at their kids to succeed is considered necessary and tough love parenting. I wouldn’t know. I am so clueless about these things that I come from the perspective that someone who’s going to achieve something exceptional in some area of their lives often succeeds at it despite the people in their lives yelling at them, not so much because of them.
But what do I know? I didn’t move my family to Compton and raise two tennis champions, especially two players in a sport not known for its friendliness to African-American players.
The film kinda dances around the topic of race, but you know it’s there. There’s a whole sequence where Venus is trouncing other players, and both the players and their parents keep storming off with a disgust which implies far more than just “I can’t believe I lost to her”. The girls’ slow, steady progress to becoming the undisputed queens of the sport does make a strange kind of sense. Other parents would be trying to earn as much as possible as quick as possible (off of their children’s labours), but, and this is the only thing to his credit that I will grant, he wants to delay his daughter turning pro as long as possible, so as to not have her burn out by the age of 17, 18.
But, there are so many “buts” about this story, and how it is told here, as we’re watching Venus being trained, becoming a better player and a more mature young lady; we’re watching Serena, the younger virtually ignored sister, essentially having to train herself. All the time and attention and focus on Venus means Serena, as depicted here, has a certain amount of resentment towards her sister and father.
But you wouldn’t know it, for two main reasons. The majority of the dialogue the two sisters have in the film, ably played by Sanniya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena as they are, amounts to little more than “Yes, Daddy” and “No, Daddy”.
There’s only so much they can do in a film that is less about what efforts and sacrifices they put in, and more about what a great man their father is
The second point stunned me. When Venus makes her move to the pros, King Richard pulls Serena to the side and tells her “You know, all that neglect, all that resentment you’ve been building up, that was all part of my strategy to make you a champion. All part of My plan.”
I felt like throwing up. This guy shouldn’t be celebrated. People should be throwing things at him in the street.
Even though I know so little about sport, I do know about people’s stories. At the end of this flick, I wasn’t thinking about the Williams sisters, who are great champions, role models, the real deal: I was thinking about Jelena Dokic, the Croatian-born Australian tennis player, who has a fair amount of success as a player, but a nightmare of a father who tormented her and made her life a living hell.
I doubt anyone’s going to dare to make the biopic saying it’s only through his abuses and contempt for other people, but especially for his own daughter, that she achieved her successes, and if they did the film should be burned unseen. My heart breaks anew for what she went through, and what all kids with monster parents are going through, and especially I feel bad for those kids whose parents are going to be inspired by bullshit dribble like this.
These quibbles I have, well, it’s not like they hurt the (baffling, to me) success of the flick. Smith’s performance, while committed, is such an unpleasant person to be around; I just wanted to get away from him, and I found it difficult to imagine an emotional basis for many of his opinions or actions. He just seemed like a vindictive arsehole who was trying to get back at the world (and eventually profit through) his daughters, as if to say “the rest of you fuckers said I was a loser, but here’s me proving you wrong.”
Both sisters signed off on this flick, so to speak, so however “true” or sanitised this version of their early lives is, they wanted it to come out like this, and for Smith to be praised for trying to embody their dad. That’s their choice, I can’t fault it.
I just, I’m missing the thing people who think this is a solid film grasp. I’ve never been an ends justify the means kind of person, so I don’t see the value of tormenting your family, and being able to point to some success down the road, as justification for anything. King Richard was an awful person (as depicted here, and far worse off screen), so I’m glad his daughters achieved what they did and can comfortably live their lives, hopefully far away from him.
5 and no, I no longer wonder why Will Smith likes playing abusive jerks out of 10
“You are the most stubborn person I've ever met in my life. And I coach McEnroe!” - King Richard