Flicks With Nicki – King Richard and the Fall of a PrinceNicki Salcedo. Photo by Fox Gradin.
When I was a teen, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” was a favorite show. Will Smith crowned himself a prince, and I was his willing subject. While the “Cosby Show” gave us the comedy of family life, “The Fresh Prince” was about being a teenager. Will portrayed a teen from West Philadelphia forced to reckon with life in the affluent suburbs of Los Angeles. It was “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but for Black kids.
The joke wasn’t on the fish-out-of-water Will, but the aptly named Banks family, who were wealthy, educated, and assimilated into white culture. Will knew how to talk and make jokes. He knew how to dance and rap. He was free-spirited and fun-loving. Will had style. Cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) was the butt of the jokes. He wasn’t Black enough or cool enough to be Will’s equal. We made fun of how Carlton talked. We laughed at how Carlton danced.
In “The Fresh Prince,” Will played the minstrel with his colorful clothes and buffoonish mannerisms. Carlton was a cautionary tale. If you elevate too much via education or wealth, you will no longer be considered Black. When I was a teenager, this was all jokes, laughs, and happiness. Now I realize, I’m less Fresh Prince and more Carlton. Today, the nuances of Black culture feel different.
“King Richard” won critical acclaim for Will Smith’s biographical portrayal of Richard Williams, the father of tennis super champions Venus and Serena Williams. Richard Williams came from simple beginnings in Shreveport, La., and rose to prominence because of his brash personality and determination to raise his family according to plan.
Will Smith immersed himself in the character, but not so fully that we don’t see him behind the shuffling footsteps and short tennis shorts. Philly is tough and so is Compton, especially when you are father to five young daughters who need education and opportunity to survive. Tennis is another chance to succeed, but only after schoolwork, foreign languages, and lessons in humility.
If Richard is the king, his wife is a queen. Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis) is quieter, but no less determined to keep her family safe and focused. Richard isn’t the only one who believes in hard work and protecting the family. My favorite scene in “King Richard” occurs after a neighbor has called the police for allegations of child abuse. The strict family schedule is viewed as dangerous. When the cops leave, Brandy goes to the house across the street.
“This is the first time I’ve come over here. That’s a shame,” she says and adds more quietly with tears in her eyes, “Don’t make me come over here again.”
That is how a queen handles a conflict. Restraint, calm, reason, and a lingering unknown threat. We see all the women step up. Venus (Saniyya Sidney) must make tough choices. Serena (Demi Singleton) finds opportunities. All five sisters are in turns serious and joyful. They hug, sing, and laugh. Like seeing a real family come to life, I was enraptured by “King Richard.”
A pivotal scene showcases Will Smith’s acting. Richard is beaten up by a local gang leader, who has been taunting the oldest sister and Richard from the start of the film. Richard decides to get a gun and later that evening searches for the young man, seemingly to kill him. Before he can shoot, something unexpected happens, and he is forced to walk away. We see anger and fear in Richard’s face, along with the sobering realization of “what if.” What if he had pulled the trigger? What if he had taken another person’s life? There would be no Venus and no Serena.
The haunting message of that scene should have been an anchor for the real-life Will Smith on Oscar night. He is no longer the Fresh Prince. His turn as King Richard is over.
During the 94th Academy Awards, Chris Rock made a joking reference to Jada Pinkett Smith looking like Demi Moore in “GI Jane.” They are both breathtakingly beautiful women with and without hair, but Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss. It doesn’t feel funny when a part of you is taken away by a medical condition. The joke turned when Will Smith walked on stage and assaulted Chris Rock. We saw a little Philly, a little Compton, and a lot of unnecessary drama.
How much more powerful would it have been for Smith to approach Rock privately? I thought of “King Richard” and the quiet, “Don’t make me come over here again.”
Smith has spent a lifetime dishing out jokes. Go back and rewatch “Fresh Prince.” The jabs are not subtle. The jokes are hurtful.
The Oscars have spent a lifetime dishing out jokes. I rarely watch the ceremony. The event relies on too much theater. The jokes poke fun at the movie stars. They are jokes based on ridicule and humiliation. It’s not funny.
It’s not the first time Will Smith has been on the giving or receiving end of a joke.
And it doesn’t excuse his violence. “I got in one little fight and my mom got scared…” Where is he going to move now? Back to Philly?
I appreciate the finesse of Chris Rock who continued his Oscar presentation. There were several actors who helped calm down Will Smith. I appreciate them. I appreciate that an apology was issued. It is possible to make a mistake and truly regret it.
One of the subplots in “King Richard” revolves around the self-important, privileged parents and kids on the tennis court who Richard wants to shield his kids from. Being humble is important. Even in the face of loss and disrespect. All we have is our own inner confidence paired with humility.
Black parents face many obstacles. I’m a strict parent. I know what people say. Sometimes, I’m enraged at other parents. I’m tempted by my baser instincts to lash out. But I haven’t. Yet. For now, at least, I am still a queen. I don’t need any man to defend or honor me with his fists.
I’ve been thinking about the Fresh Prince and Carlton. I’ve reflected on the duality of “The Gemini Man.” Now I wonder about Richard Williams and Will Smith.
We’ve seen Will Smith grow from a rapper to an Oscar winning actor. We know too much about his private life. We’ve seen him lose control. How will the movie sit with people after his awkward display of hubris and rage? “King Richard” is worth a watch. I was surprised by how good it was, but its message has been compromised. It’s easy to become a king, but hard to stay one. Grade B+
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom.