Brian Banks‘ real-life story is one that risks coming off very badly in a movie. It deals with highly sensitive topics – specifically, a false rape accusation – that require delicate handling to avoid being problematic in their portrayal. That it also involves an innocent black teenager being coerced into accepting a plea deal (in order to serve a broken justice system) is almost a secondary issue. For his film adaptation, then, Tom Shadyac (directing his first non-documentary since his life-changing bicycling accident in 2007) takes an especially heavy-handed, but otherwise steady approach that allows star Aldis Hodge to do the heavy lifting. Good intentions and Hodge’s eloquent, stirring performance help to compensate for Brian Banks‘ shortcomings as a thinly-sketched inspirational biopic.
Hodge stars in Brian Banks as the film’s namesake, a Long Beach native and high school football linebacker with the potential to make it all the way to the NFL. Everything changes, however, when Brian is falsely accused of sexual assault by another student, Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore), in the summer of 2002. Despite having evidence that proves his innocence, Brian is advised by his lawyer to take a plea deal and assured that it won’t involve jail time. In reality, though, he ends up being sentenced to five years in prison and another five of probation while registered as a sex offender. Upon completing his time in prison, Brian subsequently reaches out to the California Innocence Project and its overseer, Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), in the hopes that they will help overturn the charges against him and give him back his life.
Rather than taking a strictly linear storytelling approach, Shadyac and writer Doug Atchinson (Akeelah and the Bee) wisely drop viewers into Brian’s life while he’s still on probation and – because of his past – struggling to find an employer who will actually hire him. This allows the film to frame the events of his past through Brian’s personal memories and recollections, and (somewhat literally) let him recount his own story. The problem is that Brian Banks tends to spoon-feed all these details to viewers through expository voiceover dumps, rather than finding other, more subtle ways of communicating this information visually or perhaps through less expositional dialogue. As a result, the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of insight about the real Brian’s life that couldn’t be gained from merely reading his Wikipedia page or even one of the primary sources listed therein.
Information-laden flashbacks aren’t the only thing that Brian Banks goes overboard with, either. The film also relies heavily on montages to condense time and keep things moving at a swift pace, but at the expense of a deeper exploration of the legal obstacles that Brian had to overcome in his battle to clear his name (and what they say about the criminal justice system at large). Indeed, where something like Ava DuVernay’s recent Netflix miniseries When They See Us was a highly polished and thoughtful examination of a real-life miscarriage of justice involving young black men in America, Shadyac’s movie looks and feels like a more amateurish version of a similar project. Fortunately, Brian Banks is generally careful about treating issues like racism and sexual assault with the weightiness that they deserve, rather than exploiting them for dramatic effect.
That said, it’s Hodge who saves Brian Banks from mediocrity. A longtime standout in film and television, Hodge does a sublime job of capturing Brian’s determination and desperation with his performance, especially in the quieter or silent moments where he isn’t saddled with delivering voiceover narration. Thankfully, the movie further avoids rewriting history and makes Brian the real hero of his own story, rather than presenting the well-meaning CIP and Justin (brought to life by a capable Kinnear) as being his saviors. Melanie Liburd, by comparison, is good but partly underused as Karina, a woman who befriends Brian during his journey despite her own traumatic past. As for Roquemore as Kennisha: the story neither vilifies nor entirely humanizes Brian’s accuser, but instead paints her in a sympathetic – if, again, under-developed – light, leaning on Roquemore to fill in the cracks.
Overall, Brian Banks is a (mostly) non-problematic dramatization of the title character’s life story that narrowly avoids being a well-meaning, but middling biopic thanks to its main cast (including, an uncredited Oscar-winner whose presence here is complicated for real-world reasons). Banks’ tale is important when it comes to illustrating how race and class impact criminal allegations – specifically, those that involve sexual assault – and the way they are treated in the eyes of the law, but the movie about him is far more effective at bringing greater attention to his experiences than thriving as a work of cinema. Still, for those who are interested in learning more about, well, Brian Banks, this one is worth checking out at some point.
Brian Banks is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 99 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content and related images, and for language.