Based on a true story, Brian Banks is about a teen who, just before being set to enroll at USC on a football scholarship, was falsely accused of raping a high school classmate in 2002. After taking a hasty plea deal based on poor advice from his lawyer, the judge ultimately sentenced him to prison, throwing Banks’ football dreams and overall aspirations out the window.
After spending a little over five years in prison, Banks is released, followed by four years on probation and the stigma of being labelled a sex offender. He can’t live, work, or be near malls, parks, or anywhere else kids are known to hang out. Not to mention it makes employment damn near impossible. All for a crime that he did not commit. Banks (played by Aldis Hodge) tries to have his conviction overturned by seeking out help from Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) and his non-profit organization, The California Innocence Project.
Brian Banks is timely for sure. It could be seen as controversial in the #MeToo era since the crux of the story is about a man falsely accused of rape. It could have been a searing indictment of racial inequality and our court system considering that even though the accuser changed her story several times over, Banks was still put in jail.
Considering his brief NFL stint after being rightfully exonerated, it could have been an inspiring tale of perseverance. The straightforward nature of the movie poster — a pair of black hands in cuffs clutching a football — is very eye-catching. It was powerful enough to make me look at Brian Banks’ Wikipedia page before seeing the film. If the movie’s sole purpose was to bring awareness to Banks’ ordeal to the clueless, like the guy writing this article, then it succeeded.
As a narrative feature Brian Banks is underwhelming more than anything else. Which is too bad, because there are some great moments in this labor of love. For example, one scene involves Banks facing his umpteenth rejection due to his past incarceration. It was powerful to watch. That could be attributed mostly to Hodge’s performance.
Best known for his portrayal as MC Ren in Straight Outta Compton and his supporting role in Hidden Figures, Hodge has had smaller roles in a lot of stuff. Maybe this film will garner him more headlining roles because he’s great in it.
Everyone else, from Greg Kinnear to Sherri Shepherd (as Banks’ mother, Leomia) delivers a serviceable performance. Hell even Morgan Freeman made an uncredited appearance as the man who inspired Banks to move forward in the darkest of times. The problem comes down to how standard it all feels. One such instance would be the multiple montage scenes, driven by on-the-nose musical selections, be it Banks working out or Banks reading up on law. Scenes could have been creatively staged, but they rarely were.
There is a scene where Banks states, “Fuck the system.” It could have been the film’s revolutionary mantra, but thanks to how plainly the scene is edited and shot, it falls flat. I guess that could be attributed to director Tom Shadyac, best known for some of Jim Carrey’s most popular films (Liar Liar, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) as well as Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor and Patch Adams.
This film brings awareness to Banks’ ordeal, the incredible work that the California Innocence Project has done, and even serves as Shadyac’s return to the narrative director’s chair after an 11-year absence due to a life-changing concussion and an exile from Hollywood after Evan Almighty tanked in theaters. It’s a passion project not only for producers Banks and Brooks, but for Shadyac himself.
The message of resilience is strong in this film and it’s pushed throughout which is why it makes it hard to critique a film like Brian Banks without feeling like an asshole. It’s got all the right stuff: A remarkable true story, a classic David and Goliath theme, and a great performance by the lead — but it still comes off a little toothless.
It leads me to wonder — why couldn’t this have been a documentary instead? I mean I understand how a narrative approach may bring in more viewers but this could’ve been more powerful minus the standard heavy-handed music cues and borderline sermonizing that pulls this film down. When watching videos of Banks himself promoting the film and old press footage of him being interviewed, he seems engaging enough that he could recount his plight and could pull an audience in on his own. Brooks’ tireless work with The California Innocence Project is nothing short of amazing and humbling. But instead, they decided to go with a narrative film that ultimately gives us an inspiring story that is underserved by its uninspiring delivery
Brian Banks — Rated PG-13. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Starring Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, and Sherri Shepherd.