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Unforced Error 

King Richard and the biopic trap of "showing the real people at the end."

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click to enlarge WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Warner Bros. Pictures
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It's a bit of a running joke between me and my critic pals—as well as my social-media network—about how there's a certain convention in biographical dramas that I hate. I refer to it, quite prosaically, as "showing the real people at the end": the almost invariable tendency of filmmakers to wrap up their fact-based stories by showing us pictures and/or footage of the real-life characters whose lives we'd just seen dramatized. In part, it's a quirk of mine built on a general preference that the magic of the movies remain magical, consistent with my complete lack of interest in "behind-the-scenes" footage or director commentaries. I prefer my movies to give me a choice as to whether I'm given a look behind the curtain, and my choice will always be "hard pass."

Yet there's also a level on which I've always found it disrespectful to the actors who were cast to bring these characters to life. While there are exceptions to the rule, generally speaking, if I've just spent 120 minutes being asked to invest in dramatic performances, I don't need to be elbowed in the ribs on my way out the door as I'm told "look, they were acting like these people."

By virtue of this prologue, you might fairly guess that King Richard—the tale of Richard Williams, and how his relentless life plan for daughters Venus and Serena ultimately sent them to the top of the women's tennis world—employs this trope, and not in a positive sense. As conventional as many of King Richard's biopic rhythms are, it's boosted by some tremendous acting. And then along comes "showing the real people at the end" to make me want to pull my hair out.

The narrative here begins in the early 1990s, with Richard (Will Smith) working daily with pre-teen Venus (Fast Color's Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) on their game in their Compton, Calif. neighborhood, even as he tries to find a big-time coach willing to take them on for free. He finally lands a willing coach in Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), but "the plan" ultimately takes the entire Williams family to Florida and the tennis academy run by Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), with Richard's notions about what's best for his girls repeatedly bumping up against Macci's own strategies.

The first half, before the relocation to Florida, does the job of establishing what drives Richard to drive his daughters—a combination of all the disrespect heaped on him over the years, much of it racially-motivated, and a desire to get his family out of the neighborhood where he sees threats to his family everywhere. The title of the film alone makes it fairly clear that the screenwriters are going to be on Richard's side when it comes to the question of whether he was promoting his own interests more than those of Venus and Serena, but Smith's performance walks a delicate line where we can always see him bristle when his ultimate authority over their lives is challenged.

More powerful still is the performance by young Saniyya Sidney, who does a simply remarkable job of capturing a Venus Williams navigating the terrain between enthusiastic young girl and ferocious competitor. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green trusts her with a single shot during Venus's debut professional tournament that most actors with decades more experience couldn't pull off: a change in her facial expression when Venus decides that it's winning time where it looks like she instantly ages 15 years. Sidney creates exactly the Venus Williams that's needed for this movie, and it's a thing of beauty.

Which is why it is so instantly aggravating when the closing montage has to trot out all the footage of Venus (and Serena), both as adults and in some of the home-video footage that we saw re-created in the movie. King Richard winds its way through notions about the psychological damage inflicted by many sports-parents on their kids, and how Richard dodged that for his girls, but ultimately this is the kind of movie that lives or dies on the strength of its central performances. King Richard gets that part so right—then, right at the finish line, gets the job of honoring those performances so wrong.

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