King Richard

Written by Patrick Hao

62/100

I forgot how good of a movie star Will Smith is. Maybe because Smith hasn’t really been able to shine as a movie star since Focus. Maybe it’s because he has crafted an overly upbeat, created by an algorithm online social media persona. But geez, King Richard only works because Will Smith is a goddamn bonafide movie star. 

While formally King Richard is entirely rote and average, its conception is weird. King Richard is a biopic, not of Venus or Serena Williams, the famous tennis stars, but of their father Richard Williams (Will Smith) as he gets the two the training that they need to become who they would become, all while instilling wholesome values of family and work ethic. It seems strange for a biopic and sports drama whose subject is the father of the famous athlete until it is revealed that the Williams sisters had a big part in the production of the film. The film portrays the idealized family, struggling in poverty in Compton, but trying to rise above classicism and racism to become icons. 

Early on, Richard Williams composes a document detailing how he would get his daughters to success. This includes getting them lessons from renowned coaches like Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) through sheer force of will. The film delves a bit into William’s short-tempered-ness and a brief hankering over how he is working his daughters to the bone, but overall the film takes a decidedly approving attitude towards Williams’s treatment of his daughters. The film only provides thin sketches of the Williams sisters as there are just mere conduits to celebrate the persistence of their father. 

This is all well and good because we know the results of Richard Williams’s persistence. But, the film’s choice to not interrogate Williams as a person or his methods belies how this film is a vanity project celebration of two of the producer’s father. This is especially apparent as the film casts a judgemental eye towards other parents overburdening their children with the pressure of becoming a great sports star. The story is too clean and simple. Slight changes to the tone could easily make this film about the toxicity of a father. Instead the film, rightly or wrongly, focuses on the Horatio Alger aspects of the film. There is some pushback from Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Wallis), the matriarch of the family who is just as instrumental as a coach and parent to the success of Venus and Serena as Richard. But, she ultimately supports her husband’s actions as their relationship is portrayed ideally with no sense of true marital strife, despite later divorcing after the events of the movie.

Yet, despite it all, the film works on Smith’s sheer movie stardom. He infuses Williams with an affable poeticism. His ticks do not seem to mirror the real-life Williams but work for the character he is portraying. He is hunched, burdened by life unspoken, and thinks faster than he can speak. This is a similar type of down-home performance by Smith that was previously able to carry the cloying sentimentality of a project like The Pursuit of Happiness to a rousing success.

Rousing success is the goal of this film too. It is hard not to root for Williams and the Williams sisters. They have been part of pop culture for almost three decades now. The sports scenes are also filmed with workmanlike quality that is hard to resist as well. Like Richard Williams’ persistence to make his daughters a success, Will Smith’s persistence makes King Richard a success.

King Richard Trailer

King Richard is in wide theatrical release and available to stream on HBO Max.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

AFI Docs 2021 Review: Naomi Osaka: Episode 1

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

75/100 

Naomi Osaka is a phenom! I have been invested in Naomi’s story since her victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final. This first episode of a three part documentary series, directed by Garrett Bradley, is even more important after Naomi’s recent forced withdrawal from the Roland Garros after she released a pre-tournament statement saying she would not agree to post-match interviews because it was detrimental to her mental health. Subsequently, she has also withdrawn from Wimbledon so she can take time to focus on herself. However she still plans to represent her native Japan in the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics. These decisions made me admire Naomi even more. 

In this first episode, we are able to see the growth of a young woman and athlete that is coming into her own both on and off the court. As Naomi puts it she is still trying to figure stuff out and keep adjusting to whatever life throws at her. This awareness is very clear when Naomi states that the amount of attention she receives is ridiculous. “This is the one aspect no one prepares you for.”, she says. Naomi finds this idolatry around her is really weird. 

Episode one also gives insight into Naomi outside off the court. We see her adjusting to living by herself, in California, after purchasing her first home. Her close relationship with her father, her first coach, her mom, and sister which will hopefully be explored more in subsequent episodes.

We also see the work Naomi put in to remain on top as she returned to defend her title among spectators like Kobe Bryant, a mentor which she would later form a strong bond with, Colin Kaepernick, and her musician boyfriend Cordae. Just as important, this episode starts to give us insight into Osaka’s relationship with the press and the fan fair that surrounds her. It is really incredible that through it all Naomi remains humble as she starts to understand when she should push her limits. Naomi also starts to realize what she means for young girls around the world and how challenging life in the limelight can really be. I recommend this first episode and am excited to uncover more about Osaka’s journey and offer a complete detailed write up once all 3 episodes are out. 

Recommended

The Naomi Osaka Limited Docu-Series will begin streaming on Netflix on July 13th.