By Reed Ripley
- Directed by: Marcel Sarmiento
- Starring: Amin Joseph, Elisabeth Rohm, Olivia Holguín
- Sport/Biopic | NR | 1 hr 38 min
It’s often a cliché to call certain real-life stories “straight out of a movie,” but sometimes, that rings true. For Willie Mays Aikens, that’s certainly the case, and The Royal happily answers the call.
The film tells the redemptive story of Aikens, a former baseball player for the Kansas City Royals who fell victim to drug abuse that eventually landed him in federal prison for 18 years. Aikens burst onto the scene after the Royals traded for him in 1980, and he became a hero after homering twice in Games 1 and 4, the first player to ever do so in two World Series games (and still only one of two), and knocking in the game-winning RBI in Game 3, the Royals’ first-ever World Series win. The Royals lost that series to the Phillies, but Aikens’ performance rocketed him into Royals lore.
But cocaine use quickly derailed his life and career, culminating in a 1994 arrest and conviction for selling 50 grams of crack cocaine. Because of the much harsher federal sentencing guidelines for crack, as opposed to powder cocaine, Aikens was sentenced to a mandatory 20-year, eight-month sentence, which would have merited selling about 40 times more powder cocaine. The disparity massively and disproportionately affected minorities, and Aikens eventually became an advocate for sentencing guideline reform, highlighted by Congressional testimony in 2009.
Save for sporadic flashbacks, The Royal picks up right as Aikens (played here by Amin Joseph) leaves federal prison in Georgia and follows his path back to Kansas City in search of forgiveness, from the town, his former colleagues, his family, and, most importantly, himself. It’s a story about finding meaning and pride after his pitfalls had stripped so much away, and watching Aikens recapture his family, find significance in sharing his story, and force the Royals organization to acknowledge his growth and value is heartwarming.
There’s a palpable feeling of realness throughout The Royal, no doubt thanks largely to Aikens’ involvement (credited as a producer). Undoubtedly, some of the more dramatic moments are played up for film, but also undoubtedly, they take direct inspiration from real moments or feelings that Aikens had during that recovery period.
The accurate representation of what it’s like to live with addiction is especially effective. There’s a moment late in the film where Aikens, when asked whether he misses the drugs, says something to the effect of “absolutely, and I’m going to miss it the rest of my life.” That’s not necessarily the easiest thing to admit, but it’s true, and it’s important to convey.
The Royal, partially filmed in Kansas City, also demonstrates the fruits of efforts from organizations like the Kansas City Film Office to make film and television production a bigger part of the metro. For the past few years, the Film Office has led a major push to lure productions to KC, and the results are clear. MovieMaker has named KC as a top-20 “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker” for three years running, and with films like The Royal, that doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
Aikens’ story is well-told, including in Gregory W. Jordan’s book, Willie Mays Aikens: Safe at Home, from which Jordan also adapted the screenplay. But a lot of people engage with these kinds of stories through film, and Aikens is as good a candidate as any to receive the big-screen glow-up.
The Royal opens this week at The Screenland, 408 Armour Rd., North Kansas City. The movie can also be seen on several streaming devices: AppleTV/Itunes; Amazon Prime; Google Play; Vudu; Redbox; and YouTube Movies.
You can find more review from local movie critic Reed Ripley at Ripleysreviews.com