Will Smith is not an actor who consistently pursues Oscar nominations, but he is occasionally seized by the fervor. Has two nominations under his belt, for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, but it’s been over a decade since his last nomination. Apparently, the Oscar bug bit him again, because he’s back with a splashy biopic of Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (who also directed the Mark Wahlberg Oscar-hopeful, Joe Bell. He has a better shot with King Richard) and centers on the early years, when Richard Williams coached his daughters himself and worked to bring them to the attention of the tennis establishment. I don’t know how to feel about the first major movie about Venus and/or Serena Williams centering on their dad, but the trailer looks solid.
This is classic biopic stuff, with the scrappy underdog hero taking on a dismissive establishment, with an added bonus of family drama and featuring two of the most recognizable names in modern sports. And Smith is fronting a stacked ensembled, co-starring Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn as tennis coaches Rick Macci and Paul Cohen, respectively, and Aunjanue Ellis, just off her second Emmy nomination, for Lovecraft Country, as the Williams sisters’ mother, Oracene “Brandi” Williams. Young actors Saniyaa Sidney, as Venus, and Demi Singleton, as Serena, pop, too, though the trailer is squarely aimed at Richard. Solid cast, interesting subject, legit Movie Star lead, “based on a true story” hook. We’re ticking all the boxes.
But there is a dissonance between the earnest, almost hokey, tone of the family stuff and the hard-driving tennis stuff. Richard Williams saying that he wrote a 78-page plan for his daughters’ prospective tennis careers before they were born—something Williams claims in real life—lands oddly. All the cues say this is a good thing, but like, read the room. Look at the conversation happening right now around Simone Biles, elite sport, and mental health. Look at what Naomi Osaka has been through recently. Undoubtedly, serious, determined focus on training is part of success at the most elite levels of competition. But we’re having big conversations about what all that focus, often to the exclusion of “normal” life, does to these athletes over time. Michael Phelps produced a whole documentary about it. I don’t quite know how to articulate this, because I don’t think you can downplay the role all that focus and training had in shaping Venus and Serena into two of the most dominant tennis players of all time. But at the same time, selling their childhood as a feel-good family drama seems a little off. A biopic about Richard Williams might not be the venue for this discussion, but given the timing when this trailer debuted, and when the movie comes out in November, it seems unavoidable.