Brian Banks was directed by Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor) from a script by Doug Atchison, and is based on the untold true story of Brian Banks, a football player whose dreams of college and NFL stardom were dashed when he was wrongly convicted on kidnapping and rape charges during his high school years by a fellow classmate. The film picks up after his prison tenure, while Brian is out on probation, and mostly focuses on Brian’s fight to clear his name after discovering the California Innocence Project (CIP), a non-profit organization headed by attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted prisoners and clearing the names of those who were wrongfully convicted, but have already served their time. Unable to find work due to having been convicted of a felony, and not being allowed within 2000 yards of a school or park as part of his probationary period agreement, Brian and the CIP must find new, irrefutable evidence supporting Brian’s innocence, or else he will not be fully exonerated, and will remain a convicted felon for the rest of his life. The film also stars Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont, and Sherri Shepherd.
If you’ve never heard of this movie, you can be forgiven for not having been to see it, as the marketing for the picture pre-release was slim-to-none, and even I didn’t know what it was really about until I went to see it as part of a quadruple feature day this past Thursday. If there’s any indication of how few people know about this movie, I was the only one in the theater that night, and not only that, it had the lowest box office draw of the entire weekend overall for new releases, so it would be understandable if this movie wasn’t super high on most people’s radars. That’s not to say it gives anyone much of a reason for it to be though, as this fairly wrote procedural drama doesn’t really play out with enough conviction or nuance to be worth seeing any more than once, even if its subject matter would usually be something that grabs a lot of attention in more skilled hands during awards season.
To be sure, Brian Banks is not a terrible film overall, and we’ll get into just why that is soon enough, but given its relatively touchy subject matter, it’s surprising how many questions it actually leaves unanswered in terms of whether or not the filmmakers have anything to say about the justice system beyond “it’s not fair,” or have anything to say at all regarding how that system handles cases of wrongful convictions against black men (to say nothing of the film’s noticeable lack of commentary regarding the lack of rightful convictions in the justice system as it stands today in many cases of rape and sexual assault towards both women and men). The movie wants to tell what should be a compelling story, but doesn’t want to take a stance on any of the issues it presents, and so fails to say anything that might actually stick in viewers’ minds long-term. It fails to challenge any of the most common knowledge about cases such as Brian’s where the assailant is, in fact, guilty. Memory doesn’t work in specificity; it works in generalities, and so the victim often can’t remember specifically what happened prior to the assault, especially in cases of the assault itself being rather violent. As well, the amount of women that come forward with false accusations is exceptionally rare, but Brian Banks fails to even address either of these hurdles in its quest to get the audience on board with his exoneration.
That’s also to say nothing of a rather clunky script that doesn’t really know what element of the story it wants to focus on, jumping back and forth between the legal case itself, Brian’s prison time, and Brian’s difficult life outside of prison, plus his challenges in his dating life, so many times that it almost fails to hold its own thru-line. The parts of the film dealing with Brian’s legal case end up being the most engaging element of the whole proceeding, given that it’s the thing we know the least about, but the movie also doesn’t really start getting into that until it’s almost halfway over, and even then, we don’t get to see a whole lot of what they do outside of their interactions with Brian. There is one scene where a team of lawyers working for the CIP are all discussing what they could do to exonerate him, and it’s one of the more engaging scenes in the film, but there’s never a scene like that one in the movie again, and so the movie’s focus is pulled every which way, which makes for a poorer product overall. Like I mentioned, it’s not so much a terrible movie as it is dishearteningly average, afraid to say anything about either the #MeToo era or its detractors, and uninterested in giving any characters except Brian any level of depth.
The things that work best about the movie as it stands are the performance of Aldis Hodge and Greg Kinnear, the former putting on a fairly solid performance as the titular character, displaying more range than he’s been allowed to show since his role as MC Ren in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. It’s an impressive turn for the actor, and one that I hope gets him roles with deeper intellect and challenge than this movie’s script offers his character. Kinnear, also, is remarkably solid as Banks’ primary point-of-contact for his case, Justin Brooks, who co-founded the CIP with Law Professor Jan Stiglitz back in 1999. Kinnear is just one of those guys made for this kind of role, and you can tell he’s more than comfortable with shouldering the task of telling Brian again and again that he needs a stronger case before they can press forward on this issue, as much as it disheartens him to do so. There are also some themes the movie plays with about waiting too long to do something about the broken justice system in the United States that resonate with the audience and it’s a nice notion that the film tries to tackle the concept of “freeing your mind” even as Brian is locked up, but unfortunately, these come a little too late in the film’s runtime for them to matter all that much.
And while it may not be an overall detriment to the film’s quality that its story focuses on a wrongful conviction of kidnapping and rape by an in-equipped justice system with little in the way of care for black Americans, one does have to face the question at the end of the day of whether this is a story that needed to be told right now, given how the #MeToo movement has been serving justice to victims that otherwise might not have ever found it. The criminal justice system in the United States is its own special nightmare, with assault and rape convictions going missed every day under the guise of “ruining” men’s futures (often white men, and often college-age) while paying little to no attention to how the woman’s present has already been irreparably tarnished by the man’s despicable actions. With that in mind, it’s hard to find a reason that Brian Banks needed to exist, apart from as a showcase for Aldis Hodge to show he has more range than we previously thought, which could have been done under the banner of a different film. It’s not that the story being told isn’t compelling, or that the movie doesn’t have its fair share of good stuff, but none of that stuff will matter much in a decade’s time if the movie doesn’t speak to the current moment, and as it stands, it doesn’t really try to.
Brian Banks will almost certainly go down as one of the year’s most-missed films, but if you haven’t seen it, I wouldn’t sweat about it. The filmmaking is average at best, and while the story certainly could be compelling, it fails to establish any stance on so much of what it purports to have a stance on. Hodge and Kinnear make a fine pair of performers, and there are some interesting elements to the film’s story, but its lack of focus and conviction, as well as not having much of anything to say besides “justice system unfair,” make this one an overlookable flick you don’t have to feel bad about not seeing.
I’m giving “Brian Banks” a 5.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.