HOLLYWOOD CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 14: Demi Singleton (L to R), Serena Williams, Will Smith, Venus Williams, Saniyya Sydney, Aunjanue Els attend the 2021 AFI Fest Closing Night Primee of Warner Bros. Warner Bros. King Richard at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on November 14, 2021. Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Jon Kopaloff via Getty Images

In 2006 Essence magazine was published. a cover story with Sean “Diddy” Combs and his off-again/on-again girlfriend, the late Kim Porter, mother of three of his six children, with the headline “Real Love.” It’s a memorable image because those two words, aligned with the picture of a couple whose relationship was punctuated by his infidelityTheirs seemed like a romantic idea for Black women. Diddy, however, was an example of a Real Black man.

That interview came to mind after watching “King Richard,” the heartrending and wonderfully acted family drama that traces tennis icons Venus (portrayed by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams’ (Demi Singleton) record-breaking ascent. Because their father, Richard (Will Smith), exalted even in the movie title, is also portrayed as an exemplary figure whose transgressions — including his extramarital affairs — are virtually relegated to footnotes in favor of a hagiographical profile.

In fact, the way director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin balance Richard’s many strengths with his far less notable flaws becomes a delicate tap dance throughout the film’s two-hour-plus runtime. Though many fans might crave another story about the Williams sisters, “King Richard” makes it clear from the beginning that their father is the protagonist — and a large reason for their success.

The sheer positioning of his character, and Smith’s effortlessly charismatic and empathetic portrayal, gives us a lot to root for in him. Richard is a talented athlete and the one who rises at dawn to teach his daughters tennis at Compton’s local court. This area was often plagued with gang violence. He even practices in the rain before heading to his security job.

Richard is also the person who hustles his way in front of renowned coaches, like John McEnroe’s Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), to advocate for his girls’ undeniable talent. He demands that the girls be treated equally with white peers like Jennifer Capriati. So, of course, whenever Richard affectionately asks Venus and Serena who their best friend is, right on cue they warmly reply: “You, Daddy.”

Serena Williams, right, with her father, Richard Williams, and sister Venus Williams after winning a match July 7, 2012, at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships in London.
Right, Serena Williams with Richard Williams her father and Venus Williams their sister after she won a match in Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships 2012 in London.
Julian Finney via Getty Images

Based on what we see in “King Richard,” it is without question that he earns his status as a hero in his children’s eyes, a man whose determination and protection of their integrity as Black girls in a mostly white sport helped catapult them to the next level of their careers. This is paired with times when he’s the Black father who is both loving and a discipliner.

Like when he forces his daughters — in addition to Venus and Serena, Tunde (Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew), Isha (Daniele Lawson) and Lyndrea (Layla Crawford) — to rewatch a classic film right after it goes off because they can’t come up with its lesson when he asks. Despite his then-wife Oracene’s (Aunjanue Ellis) protests, he hits the play button again.

There are many moments like this in “King Richard,” when he is simultaneously presented as a man to be both feared and respected — even by Oracene, who is not his child but someone who is supposed to be his equal.

But anyone who’s followed Richard’s personal story since the ’90s, when Serena and Venus first garnered national attention, knows that he is less admirable as a partner than much of the film portrays. Oracene is relieved to confront him about his decisions and lack of self-worth in the kitchen.

Through Ellis and Smith’s shattering performances, we witness a woman compelling her man to look at her and what’s really going on in their relationship for perhaps the first time.

Most profoundly in this scene, Oracene mentions his son from another relationship who’s been knocking on the door of their new Florida mansion asking for money. It’s an acknowledgment thrown out in a fit of rage in the middle of a heated argument, but it is necessary if only for authenticity’s sake. Oracene divorced Richard in real life. went on to marry a woman 37 years his junior. It goes beyond the movie’s timeline, but she stays with Richard until 2002. Clearly, Oracene and Richard’s relationship was far from the ideal image most prominently portrayed in the film.

This argument does not result in Richard looking deeper inside to see the errors of his ways. It leads to an amazing moment between Richard and Venus on a court. His outside relationships, however, are never addressed again — and neither is the son he’s apparently neglected. He is actually focusing on repairing family tension and not becoming a better spouse.

It’s as if to say that now that he is an improved father, that somehow automatically means he is a better husband and no longer must account for the things he’s done outside his marriage that have hurt his wife. These things don’t have to be repeated. It’s an awkward narrative thrust that isn’t entirely earned. It does, however, make for an inspirational film that is great for families.

Perhaps this disingenuity of “King Richard” is, in part, indicative of the pull so many women feel to stand by their man no matter what. When Oracene first appears in the film, she’s nursing Richard’s wounds when the bullies in the park beat him up. She’s trying and failing to insert her voice as a deciding factor in their household.

Still, Richard’s layers are better unpacked than Oracene’s very real concerns, which are largely left unchallenged in that very pivotal argument at the kitchen counter. While it’s remarkable to see a Black male character given such nuance, it makes you wonder: If the genders were reversed and these were Oracene’s infractions, would she be given the same treatment?

Source: HuffPost.com.

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