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Diamonds in the rough, by definition,
Are diamonds no one ever thought to see,
So hidden snugly in the earth
That none would know or guess their worth,
No fanfare for their forceful birth,
No choice but anonymity.

But diamonds in the rough possess ambition,
Convinced they have a chance at gems-to-be.
Potential needs but one ally
To see its wings before they fly,
To know what others would deny:
The diamond’s there for those who see.

MPA rating: PG-13

It’s still unclear what the long-term effects will be of the infamous slap that Will Smith gave Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars ceremony, not long before Smith then took the stage to accept his award for Best Actor. I’ve loved many of Smith’s films and still think he was robbed of an Oscar for The Pursuit of Happyness, so I was genuinely glad for him to finally get that gold statue, even if there was an inescapable distaste over what preceded it. Still, I try to watch films divorced from the personalities of the actors in them, and regardless of how egregious or overhyped some may consider Smith’s slap, you have to admit that he does a fantastic job as the controversial father of future tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

King Richard would normally be a star-making role, but it seems right in line with Will Smith’s talents, even as he sports a pair of white shorts and a slight lisp. As he explains while pitching his daughters’ talents to various tennis instructors, Richard Williams had a plan for Venus and Serena from the start, and he and his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) went to great lengths to give them plenty of practice on the public court in Compton. Once Richard actually gets the attention of some coaches (Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal), he proves to be an uncompromising negotiator on his daughters’ behalf, never doubting that they are destined to be stars.

Richard Williams was never on my radar, since Venus and Serena were already lauded pros by the time I paid any attention to tennis. (Plus, my mom usually only watches men’s tennis anyway. When are they going to make a Roger Federer movie?) The film certainly gets across Williams’ prickly, opinionated side that rubbed many the wrong way, whether it be his indignation over presumed microaggressions or his controlling attitude about his daughters’ futures. While it acknowledges some of his failings, the movie doesn’t dwell on them or even mention his and Oracene’s eventual divorce, and it can seem at times that the film agrees with him that Richard Williams knew best at all times. Luckily, Aunjanue Ellis does an outstanding and necessary job to match his passion for their success and offset his stubborn domineering, like when he goes too far trying to discourage his girls from bragging after a victory. While Ariana DeBose was great in West Side Story, Ellis honestly would have been just as deserving of the Supporting Actress Oscar.

Based on their status as executive producers, it’s clear that Venus and Serena Williams support this deeply fond portrayal of their father, so even if it smooths over some of his rough edges, I like to think it’s a picture of how they saw him, their first coach and cheerleader who valued their childhoods as well as their budding talents. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as the teenaged Venus and Serena, respectively, succeed at standing out despite Richard’s shadow, and it’s easy to root for them as the underdog in what was then even more of a predominantly white sport, examples for “every little black girl on earth,” as their father says. I sometimes got the girls mixed up, partially because Richard kept using nicknames I wasn’t aware of (“Junior” for Venus and “Meka” for Serena), but it became clear by the end, as Venus becomes the first to go pro with Serena waiting in the wings for her chance.

King Richard is a comfortable fit for the usual aspirational sports movie mold, but it’s a moving and above-average rendition of an American success story. I never really had an opinion of the Williams sisters (some people I know have said they seemed arrogant, contrasting with Richard’s lessons on humility in the film), but my admiration for their talent and triumphs has certainly grown, especially in the film’s depiction of success being found even in apparent loss. Richard Williams and Will Smith may both be controversy magnets in their own way, but King Richard showcases their shared love of family, the kind of stubborn love that, despite its flaws, can still inspire.

Best line: (Richard Williams, to his daughters) “The most strongest, the most powerful, the most dangerous creature on this whole earth is a woman who know how to think. Ain’t nothing she can’t do.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2022 S.G. Liput
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