Will Smith will forever be linked to a singular moment of lapsed judgment that shocked the nation and overshadowed what should have been a crowning achievement for his powerful portrayal of Richard Williams in the 2021 film “King Richard,” still streaming on HBO MAX. .
Referencing tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams’ real-life father during the Best Actor acceptance speech, Smith channeled his portrayal’s embodiment of Richard Williams’ “fierce defense of his family” and the efforts that he would do to protect their innocence and reputation. It’s impossible to understand his intent without examining the cinematic portrayal that Smith inextricably attached to the slap being heard around the world.
“King Richard” is a film entirely about the relationship between Richard Williams and his tennis prodigy daughters Venus and Serena, two of the greatest female tennis players to ever compete. Richard raises his family, alongside his mother Brandy Price (played by Aunjanue Ellis, also nominated for Best Supporting Actress), on the mean streets of Compton where disrespectful young adults don’t hesitate to sexually harass young people sisters during their improvised practices. Fearing for his family’s safety after suffering a brutal near-death experience at the hands of these violent men, Richard seeks to bring in professional coaches who can provide a more stable environment and take the sisters’ game to the next level. . This is where Richard’s unwavering faith in his daughters’ abilities is most tested as he repeatedly faces rejection and has to come to terms with the reality of being a black man in a predominantly white space.
Smith portrays the patriarch of the The Wiliams family with stubborn determination and a keen sense of awareness of the space it tries to occupy. There are many shocking twists and turns as Richard continually expresses his dismay at the disrespect his family receives. He rejects sponsorship offers, withdraws from junior tournaments, and even severs ties with the first coach who gave his daughters a chance, all because of perceived racial slights. Richard Williams is far smarter than he lets on, a shrewd intellect thwarted by the racial injustices of the era in which he grew up. The refusal to submit the innocence of his daughters to the harsh reality of the world he lived in represents the main theme of the conflict. into the narrative as the Williams sisters become, and eventually become, shrewd and shrewd women in their own right.
Archive footage of the real Richard Williams begins to play during the end credits of the intensely emotional drama, highlighting the similarities between Smith’s portrayal and the man himself. There’s a stunning precision to the way Smith’s performance mirrors real-life Williams, from the mannerisms to the accent. There is a righteous indignation in his tone; anger and fury arise at the slightest infraction. It’s not meant to serve cliched stereotypes; rather, it is a mechanism used to shed light on the inequalities faced by those who have been oppressed both systemically and culturally. It must be a frustrating burden to protect a family from the harsh realities of a world they have no choice but to inhabit. This is where the violence inflicted on Chris Rock by Will Smith at the 2022 Oscars comes to the fore again, not as a response to oppression but as a perceived hurt inflicted on a family member.
The same forces that led Smith to portraying Richard Williams with such astonishing accuracy are the same forces that drove him to act so recklessly. That’s why Smith referenced the movie for which he won Best Actor when he addressed the altercation. Life imitates art, and in the whirlwind of (social) media scrutiny resulting from public admissions of infidelity, entanglements and memes, there must have been a signal in his psychology that identified to what Richard Williams went through during the ‘90s. An admiration for the sheer willpower needed to protect his family and achieve the success he felt was due to their talents.
the ifMilarities didn’t just play a character in a dramatized version of a movie. They bled into reality in a shocking moment of emotional discharge that had been building in Will Smith’s psyche, supercharged by a performance that will no doubt remain overshadowed by the violence he committed.
— Riley McCoy is a film critic for The Register-Herald. His column is usually published in the Life pages of the Saturday newspaper.