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Oscars Aftermath: Catching Up With 'King Richard'
Will Smith finally won an Oscar, but has the slapping incident already made it hard to watch his acclaimed performance?
“I’m not going to talk about it.” That’s how Jerrod Carmichael began his opening monologue on the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live. Everybody knew what he meant. Carmichael had made headlines with Rothaniel, a new comedy special on HBO in which he comes out as gay, but he knew that wasn’t what was on the minds of viewers nearly a week after Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards. And he didn't talk about it, at least not directly. What Carmichael did talk about was the wave of shifting reactions the slap had provoked during that week, a cycle of points and counterpoints that by Saturday night had already made it seem like part of our shared cultural history. Or, as Carmichael noted, “It feels like it happened sometime between Jamiroquai and 9/11.”
As part of that cycle, Carmichael pinpointed Wednesday as the moment when the discussion became less about the incident itself than about “proxy arguments about hair and Black men and white people on Twitter.” One week later I don’t think I have anything to add that will further those discussions. But, as someone who didn’t get to King Richard until after the Oscars I can attempt to answer this question: How weird is it to watch King Richard, and Will Smith’s Oscar-winning performance, post slap?
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The short answer: weird, but not as weird as you might imagine. And that has a lot to do with Smith’s skill. His work as Richard Williams, the tennis coach father of Venus and Serena Williams, isn’t my favorite of his performances but it’s a typically strong effort. As an actor, Smith found his greatest commercial success early on playing variations on the funny, charming public Will Smith persona, as the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and in films like Bad Boys and Men in Black. He’s never really stopped doing that, but he’s also stretched beyond the star persona in Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness and other roles. It’s such a winning persona, and one, pre-slap, he was largely able to maintain even as struggles in his private life became public, that it’s sometimes easy to forget how good he is at disappearing into a part.
You can see the effort a little more than usual here. The hunched posture, the vocal cadence, and the hair all seem a little studied. But it’s still effective in part because Smith’s not afraid to play Richard Williams’ thorniness. King Richard ends the way most biopics end these days, with real-life footage of the subjects and explanatory text that fills in what happened next and underlines the point of the movie. In this case, that means saying Richard Williams’ unconventional approach to parenting and coaching was 100% correct because look at how the Williams sisters turned out. And, hey, that’s a pretty good argument. Any approach that results in Venus and Serena Williams, who beyond their epoch-defining athletic accomplishments seem like extraordinary people, is tough to dispute, particularly one that was created to preserve their childhoods and let them feel loved and protected (to use the word Smith repeated a lot when accepting the Best Actor prize).
But what makes King Richard, and Smith’s performance, compelling is the frequent suggestion that Richard Williams maybe doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s capricious in his discipline and unpredictable in his coaching strategy, going to great lengths to secure the services of world-class coaches for free but then pushing back on their choices (even if, yeah, that open stance worked out for Venus Williams in the end). For Richard, that risky behavior is a bet that pays off. Again, it’s hard to argue with the results.
But Smith doesn’t avoid making him unlikeable, and he doesn’t go out of his way to suggest that Williams is not a self-promoting huckster who happens to be pushing the real deal. This Williams constantly frustrates his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) and steps on her credit, and his weird swerves and refusal to follow a traditional path drives coach Rick Macci (played by Jon Bernthal as an upbeat saint of a man) to the edge of madness. It all works out, but the film itself is never as definitive about Richard’s infallibility as it is in that closing text. Sure, the results are spectacular. But did this prickly man — who at one point threatens to drive off and leave his kids behind at a convenience store for their perceived lack of humility then compromises by forcing them to watch Cinderella until the moral sinks in — have to make it this hard?
Richard Williams is a complicated character that Smith plays well. It might also be a sign of what’s to come. When — it’s likely not if — Smith picks up his career again it will be hard for him to go back to playing wisecracking cops and easygoing charmers — Will Smith types, in other words. But difficult, borderline self-destructive men? Those are already in his skill set.