In 1980, the auspiciously named first baseman Willie Mays Aikens made baseball history when he hit two home runs in two World Series games, a feat that wasn’t repeated until 2009. That year, the Kansas City Royals player was second in home runs and RBIs only to teammate, friend and future Hall of Famer, George Brett.
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento, “The Royal” isn’t obsessed with Aikens’ on-the-field triumphs. Instead — with a script by Gregory W. Jordan, based on the 2012 book he co-wrote with Aiken, “Willie Mays Aikens: Safe at Home” — the movie recounts what happened to the major league slugger after he served 14 years for crack cocaine possession and distribution.
In 1994, under the inequitable federal sentencing guidelines, Aikens was sentenced to more than 20 years for possession with intent to sell 50 grams of crack cocaine. (He’d have had to be in possession of five kilos of powdered coke to receive a similar sentence.) He was released early because the federal mandatory minimums were revised and made retrospective.
Although “The Royal” touches on his conviction and utilizes archival footage of Aikens’ actual home runs, it’s his out-of-prison challenges that propel the story. And there are plenty. Several are the upshot of Aikens’ sense of exceptionalism. Others represent the injustices of mass incarceration, poverty and the unfair application of draconian sentencing on people from marginalized communities. While the film’s marketing touts its family and faith values, the movie itself doesn’t proselytize so much as pay heed to Aikens’ spiritual and familial journeys.
Actor Amin Joseph embraces just how tricky it can be to depict a former pro athlete’s hubris, as well as a recovering addict’s self-justifications and impulse-control issues, and still engage moviegoers’ sympathies. Aikens makes a habit of sounding railroaded by the system. In a sense he was, but it’s not a good look, and Gordon’s screenplay thoughtfully maneuvers the tensions between personal agency and institutional inequity.
Early on, Aikens’ longtime lawyer and friend Francine (Elisabeth Röhm) warns him that he cannot miss his first parole hearing — and absolutely cannot travel outside of Missouri. Yet he tempts fate and the clock by returning to his hometown of Seneca, S.C., with a brown paper bag of his scant possessions under his arm. Willie wants to make a quick visit to his elderly mother who is ailing. First, though, he stops at the baseball field of his boyhood dreams. The incumbent flashback introduces a pivotal character in his coach but also hits a few clunky sentimental notes that float on an often-cloying soundtrack.
Seeing his mom after all these years, is an understandable desire — not that the visit goes the way this prodigal son hoped. His sister Dolores (Charline St. Charles) has held down the family fort, such as it is, and doesn’t much like him. And his mother’s memory woes thwart any celebratory reunion. The one thing stopping Willie from going back to prison before he’s had even had two days of freedom is that little league coach, now sheriff, played with tough-love clarity and compassion by Michael Beach.
Indeed, Aikens is surrounded by people who continue to want good things for him and expect good things from him still. There’s the sheriff. There’s his lawyer, Francine, who tries to get Willie to commit to opportunities through which he can use his experience of being incarcerated to address the draconian effects of the federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. There’s a former friend turned pastor (Michael Beasley) who gentles Willie away from his frozen and tempted stance outside a liquor store. And there’s Kansas City Royalty, Brett (Nic Bishop), whose friendship endured.
Although Aiken can be stubborn and selfish, Willie has a plan he shares with his parole officer (LisaRaye McCoy): reunite with his wife, Sara (Andrea Navedo), and their 17-year-old daughter, Camila (Olivia Holguín), and return to the team of his most halcyon feats as its batting coach.
The higher ups at the Royals don’t see much good publicity in hiring the former inmate and recovering addict. As for his family, Sara’s wary but committed to seeing what’s possible. And her portrayer, Navedo, does a sympathetic job of not depicting Sara as dupe to Willie’s promises. Camila is even more prickly than most teenage daughters about Dad having anything to offer her at this late date. Holguín’s Camila has a veneer of the kind of smarts intended to protect deep vulnerabilities.
From the opening scenes of the film, in which Willie stands in the prison yard with a sizable crucifix hanging around his neck, signs of Aikens’ spiritual journey abound. His is not the only cross worn in the film and Aikens Christian faith undergirds the movie. A visit to a church further underscores that point. Short on homers but not humility, “The Royal” won’t vie with any sports flicks for flash, but it doesn’t steep its worthwhile lessons in sanctimony either.
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