King Richard, by Albert W. Vogt III

For a film reviewer, some weekends can be trickier to navigate than others, particularly when social demands press in on your theater schedule.  At the same time, we need those other outlets to make ourselves more well-rounded individuals.  There is a life beyond the cinema, and thinking otherwise is not a healthy way of living.  Besides, there are some experiences with family and friends that I would not miss for any premier, be it this weekend’s movies or Star Wars.  Getting to the point, there were two new offerings that I wanted to see, but which Cameron and I split.  I figured Ghostbusters: Afterlife might be more Cameron’s bailiwick, though that should not be an indictment on my desire to see it.  After a couple of weekends in a row of big-budget action films, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife seemingly having more of the same, I decided to go see King Richard.

We all know about Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus Williams (Sanniya Sydney) from their illustrious tennis careers, but King Richard tells the story of their father Richard (Will Smith).  He, along with his wife Oracene “Brandy” (Aunjanue Ellis), work hard to provide for their five daughters while living in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles.  For Richard, it is about more than just getting by because he has a plan.  Each one of his children excel in their own way, but with Serena and Venus, it is tennis on which these two in particular focus.  While Brandy works during the day as a nurse, Richard takes them to a nearby public court where they can work on their skills.  He provides as much motivation as he can, putting up inspirational signs along the fences.  These help to block out some of the awfulness of the rough neighborhood around them.  When this is over, they are taken home and Richard goes to his job as a nighttime security guard.  Still, Brandy and Richard each acknowledge that if Serena and Venus are going to take the next step, they need a more dedicated coach.  While the children are in school, Richard is busy visiting tennis clubs in the area to get the word out about his daughters.  Eventually, he takes them to one where Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) is giving lessons to famed stars John McEnroe (Christopher Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Chase Del Rey).  Richard manages to convince Paul to hit some balls with Serena and Venus, and Paul is impressed.  However, he agrees to take on only Venus as his pupil for free, even though Richard sits in on the tennis instructor’s lessons and gives his own advice.  Meanwhile, Serena gets private tutelage from her mother, who is also knowledgeable about the sport.  With Venus, Paul decides to enter her into junior national tournaments.  Richard reluctantly agrees, but when he sees the culture of the kids and the parents involved, he decides to pull Venus out of competition.  Paul is flabbergasted, citing his experience and how every other professional has followed this path.  What Richard does not want, though, is for his daughters to have nothing in their lives but tennis, which is what he saw from the others at the tournaments.  Now they are in need of a new coach, and the next person they turn to is the current world’s number one ranked female tennis star Jennifer Capriati’s (Jessica Wacnik) trainer, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal).  After traveling to Compton to meet with Serena and Venus, Rick sees the potential stardom in the pair and agrees to take them on as his pupils.  Richard then steps in with a contract outlining everything the family will need to move to Florida and Rick’s academy.  Once there, the girls can receive top-notch training at a world class facility, and the family is given a nice home in a nearby suburb.  The only thing still missing is competition.  Despite Rick’s insistence, Richard remains steadfast that neither would be entering tournaments until they become professionals. Venus, at fourteen, is ready, and when a chance to enter the Bank of the West tournament in Oakland comes up, Rick and Venus discuss the possibilities.  Richard is the one that needs convincing, but with a little help from Brandy and Venus insistence, he relents.  Venus advances to meet the eventual winner of the tournament, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (Marcela Zacarias), and takes a lead in their match.  During their second set, with Venus winning, Vicario suddenly storms off the court in anger.  It is a delaying tactic, and it rattles Venus.  Venus eventually loses, and she takes it hard.  Nonetheless, her fame is cemented and when she walks out of the stadium, there is a mob of people there waiting to greet her.  For the Williams sisters, as the old saying goes, the rest is history.

The title character in King Richard is incredibly complex.  This Catholic, with my traditional tendencies, enjoyed seeing the interest he takes in his children.  Where this shines is in the way he protects his daughters.  They are a Christian family, and he models (for a time) the way a Christian should approach tense situations.  He first opportunity comes when his eldest step-daughter, Tunde Price (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew), is being harassed by a gang of rough men in the park next to the tennis court where they train.  Richard goes right up to them and asks them, respectfully, to leave Tunde alone.  Their answer is violence, and the girls witness their father get punched.  It is the equivalent of turning the other cheek.  Unfortunately, when this does not result in Tunde being honored as she deserves, Richard reacts with violence. This result in a more severe beating, which he takes by laying down and covering up as best as he can.  Frustrated, he finds the gun he carries as a security guard and plans to use it on those responsible.  When he finds them, they fall victim to a drive-by shooting before he can act.  While the Christian in me wishes he did not even think of retaliating, I also cannot say that I blame him.  When we feel like there are no other options than violence, it is difficult to remember the dangers it poses to our path to Heaven.  There is always another way of defending one’s self, but it is hard to see them in the heat of the moment.  Luckily, God always offers a way back to Him for the sincere of heart.

Another place that King Richard shows his strengths as a father is in the plan that he constructs for his daughters.  What the movie suggests, though, is that he becomes obsesses with it.  On the one hand, he wants Serena and Venus to remain regular kids.  At one point, when he feels that the pressures of Rick’s academy are getting to be too much, he takes the family to Disney World.  His decisions ride the line between doing what is best for them, and for himself as their dad.  With the success that Serena and Venus enjoy, the more he becomes fixated on following his plan.  What he has trouble recognizing is the fact that his daughters might have hopes and dreams of their own.  This comes to a head when he initially resists Venus entering tournaments again.  It is not until Brandy suggests that Venus have a say that he finally relents.  This is carried through when Venus meets with a representative from Nike, who wants to give her millions of dollars for an endorsement deal.  Anyone might jump at the chance of receiving so much money, but she turns it down because she feels like she has yet to prove herself worthy of such a deal.  Such strength of character tells Richard all he needs to know about his daughter’s preparedness.

One thing I have left out in talking about King Richard is how it mentions some of Richard’s various indiscretions.  It is not a major part of the film, but he has apparently been married three times, and has fathered several other children.  As I said, he is a complex character.  Either way, it did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the film, and I recommend it unabashedly.  If you can handle a little violence, it is a truly inspirational story.

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