Directed by Marcel Sarmiento (The ABCs of Death [D Is for Dogfight], Faceless) and written by Gregory W. Jordan, The Royal is based on the true story of Willie Mays Aikens, a star hitter for the Kansas City Royals (and the Toronto Blue Jays!) who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug possession. Before his arrest, Aikens was one of the top sluggers in major league baseball, hitting a total of 110 home runs over the course of his career.
Amin Joseph (2017’s Baywatch, Hulu’s Snowfall series) gives a moving, if understated, performance as Aikens. Rather than focus on Aikens’ as an athlete, The Royal begins after he has been released from prison. Far from the star athlete he once was, he finds himself shunned by former colleagues and friends. Still, baseball is what he knows. To get his life back on track, Aikens’ sets his sights on landing a coaching position with the Kansas City Royals.
Aikens’ story is a moving one that speaks to the discrimination embedded in America’s drug laws. As he attempts to reunite with his family and adjust to life on the outside, his attorney urges him to speak publicly about his experiences and the harm of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Baseball fans will find depth and nuance here. But those unfamiliar with Aikens impressive career might find themselves wondering what all the fuss is about. Because the film focuses on his life after prison, we are introduced to Aikens’ life and relationship with baseball through brief flashbacks. It’s an approach that helps ground us in Aikens’ mind and emotions but fails to communicate the full picture of his past accomplishments and mistakes.
Unfortunately, the result is more a collection of facts than the intimate character study one might hope for, given the depth of talent on screen.
At the heart of the film is Aikens’ relationship with his daughter, Camila (Olivia Holguín). Now a teenager, Camila has not seen her father since she was a small child and views his incarceration as abandonment. There are moments between them that feel truly tender, but Camila felt far younger than seventeen to me. While her tendency to quote famous authors provided a good opportunity to show how she and her father have shared intellectual interests, it did get on my nerves after a while. I would have liked to see her character developed further, given that the film focuses so much on this relationship.
As strong as Joseph’s performance is, The Royal falls a bit flat. Though it isn’t a bad film, it is forgettable. By skipping over the more exhilarating moments of Aikens’ life and career, what remains is a touching, yet shallow, portrait of a man struggling with himself – punctuated by the occasional dry and plodding walk down memory lane.
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