Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2021. Overbrook Entertainment, Star Thrower Entertainment, Warner Bros., Westbrook Studios. Screenplay by Zach Baylin. Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Produced by Will Smith, Tim White, Trevor White. Music by Kris Bowers. Production Design by William Arnold, Wynn Thomas. Costume Design by Sharen Davis. Film Editing by Pamela Martin.
It’s Compton in the early eighties, and Richard Williams (Will Smith) is determined to make sure his daughters Serena and Venus end up being more than just the ghetto stereotype that people see when they watch them training on the tennis court. The talents that his girls display with the racket is something that Richard knows will take them all the way to the top and beyond, and he pushes them hard, sometimes having them practice at night in the rain and inspiring the nosy neighbours to call the authorities on them. Between lectures from his wife (Aunjanue Ellis) about keeping perspective, Richard spares himself no embarrassment in making his goals known to the traditionally white and elitist milieu of the tennis world, handing out flyers and offering potential coaches the opportunity to guide these future superstars into a level of success that they too can profit from. After a lot of unsuccessful hustling, Williams scores high-ranking coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) for Venus, pulling him away from his star athletes John McEnroe and Pete Sampras and convincing him to invest in her future, which he does.
Venus’s hard work and dedication pay off, but Richard disagrees with Paul’s plans to put her into professional competitions, deciding that her talent, and that of her sister’s waiting in the wings for her moment to follow, need to gestate slowly while making sure they both remain children for as long as possible; Richard is concerned about seeing other young players who are burning out because of pressure and high expectations, which leads to a fall-out with Cohen and a move to the even more notable coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal in Dorothy Hamill hair). Macci signs on for Richard’s long-term plan, but as Venus herself begins to express interest in getting her professional career going, Richard is forced to face the conflicts within himself that his daughters’ success is bringing up, the possibility that what he wants them to prove to the world is more about his own insecurities than their glory. Arguments ensue, monologues perfect for Oscar clips are delivered with passionate emotion and, eventually, a climax is reached that will drive home the message that Richard has been delivering all along about both life and life on the tennis court, the importance not of winning but of knowing how to play the game.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green takes a world well known to movie goers from films like Boyz N The Hood and enjoys spending as much time as possible turning all stereotypes on their ear: their “ghetto” life is one of a happy, strong family, the setbacks they suffer as the only black players in a very white sport don’t destroy them, their resistance of the violence of their neighbourhood (represented by their interactions both good and bad with local gangsters) doesn’t overwhelm them, and nobody dies in order to symbolize something meaningful. Smith gives his most contained performance yet, an improvement of his work in The Pursuit of Happyness that, like the film, does nothing to push the boundaries of the inspirational biopic genre but earns points for never allowing the touchy-feely moments to spill over into excessive indulgence. He is matched by a powerhouse performance from Ellis as his equally committed, if much less unorthodox partner, and as the two future tennis aces, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are instantly endearing, impressive both in performing the sport and delivering characters you are happy to see succeed.
Making a movie whose ending is already well known to the audience is a risky move, it’s harder to find the tension if you’re already well aware that the dreams the main character has are going to come true in plentiful ways, and making it while all the real-life figures are still alive threatens the possibility of Selena syndrome, a film whose basic story is true but whose unpleasant details have been disingenuously scrubbed away to avoid harming anyone’s ego. Green thankfully allows Richard to be a mercurial, sometimes frustrating character who takes his lumps from his peers when it is required and, despite his focus on his own sense of integrity, accepts the call to listen to his daughters when it is absolutely necessary.
Golden Globe Award: Best Actor-Drama (Will Smith)
Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Supporting Actress (Aunjanue Ellis); Best Original Song (“Be Alive”)
Screen Actors Guild Award Nominations: Outstanding Motion Picture Cast; Best Actor (Will Smith)