Good news, everyone! My penance has been paid and I am free of a certain company named for a currently burning rainforest. As such, I can catch up on the blog and get back to regular coverage. I’ve got three reviews in the chamber, and this is the first. Plus I’ll have a new edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable” coming next week.
Directed by Tom Shadyac, who is more famous for helming over-the-top comedies like Ace Ventura, the new drama Brian Banks tells the story of the titular former football prodigy who lost his chance at a college scholarship and a path to an NFL career when he was falsely accused of rape at the age of 16. He eventually served six years in prison, and after his release he was exonerated with the help of the California Innocence Project.
On the surface, it seems like a very inspirational story, and the movie does come through more often than not in that regard. Other times, however, it stumbles a bit under the weight of cliché, and goes on tangents that are often meaningless and in no way germane to the story.
A lot of the heavy lifting is done by lead actor Aldis Hodge as Banks. His performance is what elevates this film beyond “TV Movie of the Week” status, as he’s equal parts desperate and hopeful, measured and exasperated, joyous and filled with rage depending on what the scene calls for. You can truly believe that this was a good – if naïve – kid who has been severely wronged and robbed of his future. His desires are simple, understandable, and relatable. All he wants is to clear his name and regain some semblance of the life he was working towards when it all came crashing down.
At the age of 16, Banks sneaked off down a hallway at his high school and made out with a fellow student. Embarrassed about getting caught, the girl, Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore of The Mindy Project), claimed that Banks had forced her down the hallway, into a stairwell, and raped her. Because he conceded that he did something consensual with her, thereby admitting to time and place, Banks was unlikely to be acquitted, even though his story never changed and hers did multiple times, to say nothing of all the exculpatory evidence that was never even investigated, much less ignored by the court. As such, Banks’ lawyer convinced him to plead No Contest to one charge in hopes of getting probation. He was instead sentenced to six years in prison and made to register as a sex offender. Meanwhile, Rice and her mother sued the school and were fraudulently awarded $1.5 million, making it almost impossible that Rice would ever recant her story.
The main plot of the film takes place after Banks’ prison term, with him out on parole and trying to put his life back together. He has trouble getting a job, as he must disclose that he’s a convict on applications. Under federal law, no convict is ever entitled to work again, and employers can dismiss any applicant on that basis, even if their debt to society has been repaid. He has to wear an ankle monitor, and is constantly being harassed by his parole officer (Gino Vento). His situation has put his mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd) under a lot of emotional stress.
Banks seeks out the help of the California Innocence Project, led by Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear). While sympathetic to his cause, Brooks is hesitant to help, as a) Banks is already out of prison, b) he took a plea deal, which means no evidence was ever entered into court, and c) to get a new trial, there needs to be new, groundbreaking exculpatory evidence for a writ of habeas corpus, which rarely succeeds. The challenge is daunting, and even when Brooks agrees to come on board, it’s more due to pressure from his staff than any real belief that they’ll succeed.
In a way, this quasi-antagonistic relationship is one of the film’s other strong points. There are a lot of manipulative tropes in this movie, which I’ll get to shortly, but this is one of the times that the script is able to avoid the trappings of the genre. Given the racial subtext of Banks’ conviction, it would be oh so easy to turn Brooks into a white savior character. There are hints of it, certainly, especially as he pulls off some heroics at the end, but it’s to the film’s credit that Banks is the one who does the majority of the leg work to prove his innocence, including a compelling, but ill-advised stunt in which Banks uses a private investigator and hidden cameras to get Kennisha to admit she was never raped after she casually reaches out to him on Facebook as if nothing happened. The confession is inadmissible, because Rice did not know she was being recorded, but it provides the truth that Banks needs to get Brooks on board at last.
Now, as mentioned, despite these positives, the film is deeply flawed, as it goes in several directions to be one of those tear-jerker movies you share with the whole family. The problem is that none of those tangents are good for anything but cheap sentiment.
The largest of these sins is in the romantic subplot. After applying for a job at a boxing gym, Banks forms a bond with a woman named Karina (Melanie Liburd). The two actors have chemistry, but the entire relationship has no bearing on anything that happens. It’s little more than a pleasant distraction from the heavier themes of the main story. Karina, to a certain extent, serves as a counterpoint to the petty Kennisha, but there’s no time or reason to set up such a dichotomy.
There is one moment where the film reaches for poignancy with Brian and Karina. After initial reticence when she learns of his conviction, Karina reveals that she was raped in college and didn’t report because she was convinced no one would believe her. It forced her to drop out of school. A man falsely accused coming to an understanding and respect with a woman who suffered in silence after true abuse could have been a truly profound exploration, but sadly it’s cast aside fairly quickly to get back to the PG-rated romance.
Among the other weird tangents is a flashback plot about a juvenile hall counselor who inspired Banks to let go of his anger (even though he never truly does). He’s played by Morgan Freeman, and basically fits the guardian angel archetype and speaks only in cliché. While the friendship between Banks and the counselor is genuine (noted at the conclusion), the role itself is so flat and faux pious that Freeman himself didn’t even take a credit for what is basically the third highest supporting role. We don’t even get to enjoy a bit of irony in having Red from The Shawshank Redemption back in prison in a more positive context.
Finally, there’s something of a betrayal in the central theme of the story. It’s a line highlighted in all the trailers: The truth matters. If that’s the case, then why overdramatize what is already a compelling story in itself? Why change the name of the woman who falsely accused Brian Banks? The real name of the woman who took his life away is Wanetta Gibson. What purpose does it serve to change the names to protect the guilty? Also, why create so many characters out of thin air? Apart from Banks, his mother, Brooks, Morgan Freeman’s counselor, and one of Brooks’ staffers – Alissa Bjerkhoel (Tiffany Dupont), all of the characters, including Kennisha and Karina, are either fabricated or composited. Correction, there is one other real person, former USC head football coach and current Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll (Matt Battaglia), who is depicted as the nicest guy imaginable and always in Banks’ corner (when convenient), and who gives Banks his shot at the NFL after he’s cleared. Again, truth matters, so why not bring up the fact that Carroll was found guilty of multiple NCAA infractions, recruiting violations, or the fact that he cut and ran to Seattle rather than face the music? Oh right, because that might make the NFL look bad, and we can’t risk that licensing money, now can we?
Overall, the story of Brian Banks is an inspiring one, where justice delayed eventually becomes justice served, and a good man gets a second chance. The movie, Brian Banks, is mostly enjoyable, but loses focus far too often and goes off on melodramatic tangents at the cost of verisimilitude. A charming lead performance from Aldis Hodge goes a long way towards making the film palatable, and when it’s all said and done, it is a positive experience. However, to borrow some football terminology, it would have been better to just go for a direct forward pass, rather than a bunch of end-arounds.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you find legal dramas compelling? Seriously, how did Pete Carroll fuck up that Super Bowl by not calling a handoff to Lynch? Let me know!