I never considered Will Smith a great actor. His on-screen polish was a bit too slick to cover films with true grit. His hilarious work with comic Martin Lawrence did entertain; and his efforts in movies with Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones held appeal for me too.
Yet Smith’s range seemed narrow, I thought.
I thought wrong.
For if ever Smith had a film that necessitated he stretch is acting chops, “King Richard,” now streaming on HBO Max, was such a film.
Tasked with carrying it, he might have produced his magnum opus as Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Serena and Venus. Smith elevated the movie from a pedestrian biopic to must-see viewing.
I don’t know how true Smith’s portrayal of Richard Williams was to the actual man. I hope it captured him.
Look, I knew a bit about Williams. His role in the Serena and Venus narrative had been chronicled in articles here and there. Although I watch tennis closely, I hadn’t bothered to read a lot about the man. I preferred the myth of Richard Williams to the reality of him.
That’s my failing.
Media are notorious for painting Black men in an unflattering light, and whenever I spot it on the screen, I know the film will come across as plastic — stereotypes about what a Black man is and what he isn’t.
I remember from “Moonlight” what can happen when a director ditches stereotypes and puts a unique figure in front of moviegoers — not necessarily to love the character but to enjoy him. They craft a movie worthy of an Academy Award.
I give away none of “King Richard” when I tell people that Williams, as a father should, held a tight rein on his daughters. He saw talent in his girls that others didn’t. To me, his refusal to let outsiders remake them didn’t make sense at times, but then I realized he couldn’t put the fate of his daughters in somebody else’s hands.
Yes, Richard Williams was a domineering father. Yes, he was intractable on oh-so many fronts. But, yes, he loved his daughters more than any of the white men who wanted to coach them did.
In the film, Smith made me hate Richard Williams at times; he made me applaud Richard Williams at times, too.
For stripped of designer suits and flashy rides, his signature in other cinematic works, Smith grabbed this straightforward story and elevated it.
His is as real a look at a Black father as I have watched on screen since the father that Denzel Washington played in “Fences,” a 2016 movie that never got its due.
But Washington’s fictional Troy Maxson and Smith’s Richard Williams are decidedly different patriarchs. They are similar in one respect, however: Both men had high aspirations for their children.
Maxson failed his sons; Williams did not fail his daughters, which is a difference worth celebrating.
A friend once told me I couldn’t care more about his children than he did, and he was absolutely right — I couldn’t.
Richard Williams made that point to the men who tried to control his daughters and their tennis careers. He’d never allow it.
Will Smith’s brilliant portrayal of him wouldn’t let me forget the complexities of a Black father whose down-home ways served his daughters well.