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. The Kansas City Royals player in that year was second in RBIs and home runs to George Brett, his friend and future Hall of Famer.
Marcel Sarmiento directed. “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.
Aikens was sentenced for possession with intent of selling 50 grams of crack cocaine in 1994 under the inequitable federal sentencing guidelines. (He’d have had to be in possession of five kilos of powdered coke to receive a similar sentence.) Because the federal mandatory minimums had been revised and made retroactive, he was released quickly.
However “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. There are many. Several are the upshot of Aikens’ sense of exceptionalism. Others are the injustices of mass imprisonment, poverty, and unfairly applying draconian sentencing to people from marginalized groups. 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 has a reputation for sounding stifled 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. He tries to defy fate and the clock, returning to Seneca, S.C. with a brown paper bag containing his few possessions. Willie would like to pay a visit to his mother, who is in serious decline. But first, Willie stops at the field that he used to dream of as a boy. Flashback: The incumbent flashback introduces a key character in his coach, but also hits some clunky sentimental sounds that float on a 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.
Aikens has a lot of people around him who still want him to succeed and are expecting him to do the same. 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 more stubborn than many teenage girls about Dad not having anything to offer at this point in her life. 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. Aikens Christian faith is the foundation of the film. His cross is not the only one worn in the film. That point is reinforced further by a visit at a church. We are short on homers, but not humble. “The Royal” won’t vie with any sports flicks for flash, but it doesn’t steep its worthwhile lessons in sanctimony either.