‘King Richard’ And The Delicate Dance Of Exalting A Flawed Black Man

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Back in 2006, Essence magazine ran 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 infidelity, seemed to suggest that theirs was a romantic ideal for Black women. And that Diddy represented 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, a skilled athlete in his own right, is the man who gets up at the crack of dawn to train his then-adolescent daughters at their local tennis court in Compton, one often plagued by gang violence, even practicing in the rain before he heads to his unfulfilling night job in security.

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 insists that they be treated with the same level of respect as white counterparts such as 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.

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. That is, however, paired with those times when he is the emblematic Black dad who is as loving as he is an authoritative disciplinarian.

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. That is why it is a relief when Oracene finally confronts him in their kitchen about how he consistently makes decisions about the girls on both their behalf and how his desperation for their success has a lot to do with his lack of self-worth.

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. After all, in real life, Oracene and Richard have since divorced and he went on to marry a woman 37 years his junior. (It exceeds the timeline in the film, but she also stays with him until 2002.) Clearly, Oracene and Richard’s relationship was far from the ideal image most prominently portrayed in the film.

Still, this argument only results in Richard taking a deeper look inside himself to recognize the error of his ways, leading to a beautiful moment between him and Venus on a tennis court. His outside relationships, however, are never addressed again — and neither is the son he’s apparently neglected. In fact, much of his actions moving forward result in repairing the tension within the family and not on becoming a better partner to his wife.

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. And that they need not be discussed again. It’s an awkward narrative thrust that isn’t entirely earned. But, hey, it does make for a good inspirational family film.

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?

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