There’s some serious hate being directed towards Will Smith out in the online universe following the release of his autobiography, which came out in June. Though the actor has put in what might well turn out to be an Oscar-winning performance in KING RICHARD, neither him nor the film are feeling the love. KING RICHARD, which hit the cinemas in the US last week, had a very unexciting opening weekend, taking in just US$5.7 million at the box office even though it has received high praise from most critics and audiences. It currently sits at a fresh 92% amongst critics and 99% amongst audiences. So what’s going on?
KING RICHARD tells the story of Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. If you don’t know the background, the Willamses lived in Compton, a city south of Los Angeles that is known more for its poverty, unemployment and drive-by shootings than for producing world-class athletes. But Richard (Smith, SPIES IN DISGUISE; ALADDIN; COLLATERAL BEAUTY; CONCUSSION) had a plan for his five daughters. While some were on paths to become doctors and lawyers, Venus and Serena (played by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively), were groomed to become the greatest players professional tennis has ever known. So sure of his plan, while the sisters were just children swatting at tennis balls in their dilapidated neighbourhood court late into the night, Richard was working hard to find investors in his girls’ future. He knew that getting them a professional coach would be beyond what he and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK; TV’s LOVECRAFT COUNTRY) could afford on their two incomes but the man was undeterred. In the end, he got John McEnroe and Pete Sampras’ coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn, GHOST), to coach Venus for free in her early years, and then Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD; FORD V FERRARI; THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON; WIDOWS; WIND RIVER; BABY DRIVER; ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL) signed both sisters to his tennis academy a few years later. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not surprisingly, Richard Williams comes across in the film as a good husband and loving father even if his parenting methods are rather unorthodox. While the Williams sisters approved the script and signed up to be two of the film’s producers, the reality is that their father isn’t as saintly as he’s portrayed on screen. Though the story very briefly mentions that Richard had abandoned the son from his first marriage, he has, in fact, five other children from that relationship. In an interview his eldest daughter gave last year, she is quoted as saying, “He’s not a dad, he was just a sperm donor.” She goes on to say that she has “between fifteen and nineteen” half-siblings. Of course, none of that is covered in the movie nor is the fact that Venus and Serena’s older sisters in the movie are, in fact, their half-sisters as their mother had also been married before.
Other Richard Williams critics are pointing out that KING RICHARD focuses more on Richard’s efforts than on the sisters’ talents. In other words, they’d be nothing if it weren’t for him. Not to take anything away from their achievements or athleticism, I would say that yes, they would have been nothing if it weren’t for him. As the story points out, whenever they came to a pivotal point in their journey to the top, he was there to guide them. His choices were controversial and his style was abrasive but he was right each and every time. Like him or not, Richard did create them. Of course, theatre and sports parents are going to look at this film and push their kids even harder now but that’s just playing with fire. While it worked for the Williams sisters, it’s not going to work for all children. I went to high school with two guys whose parents pushed them hard to get into medical school. They both did but then dropped out mid-way through after experiencing nervous breakdowns. I don’t think either of them ever continued their studies after that.
I enjoyed KING RICHARD far more than I expected I would. It’s an entertaining film and the performances are all solid, especially those by Sidney and Singleton, who are wonderful here as the sisters. I don’t know if they play tennis in real life or if they were coached for this film but they both looked realistic on the courts.
Haters gonna hate. Ignore them and go see KING RICHARD. It’s a straight-sets winner. The film is playing in Hong Kong’s cinemas now.
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