In this #MeToo age, a biofilm about a wrongfully–convicted high school football player – accused, tried and imprisoned for rape – comes at a most appropriate moment.
The real Brian Banks, the subject of the movie which opens Aug. 9, lived through a tragic yet inspiring ordeal – something that’s lost in this one-dimensional retelling of his experiences. Thus, this powerful tale of resilience results in little more than an ordinary made-for-TV-like movie.
In 2002, Banks (Aldis Hodge, Straight Outta Compton, Hidden Figures), a junior at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach and a talented football player, has verbally committed to attending USC based on his gridiron prowess. The future looks bright for him and his single mom Leomia (Sherri Shepherd). One day, he runs into coed Kinnesha Rice (Xosha Roquemore) and they decide to hook up in a secluded school building commonly known as a location for making out.
While there, Brian has a change of heart, leaving Kinnesha behind who’s discovered by security and fabricates a story about being raped. Her lie leads to Banks’ arrest, a too-hasty plea deal, trial, imprisonment, a tough parole and a haunting sex offender label.
Banks can’t live, work or be near places that children gather – including schools, parks and malls – has lost any academic or professional football opportunities and unless his conviction is overturned, his future appears bleak.
That’s the setup: sympathetic protagonist, wrongly accused, innocent and determined yet filled with self-doubt. He’s the David facing Goliath – a state judicial system that rarely overturns cases against convicts. Audiences like to watch a “good fight” against injustice. Bring it on.
Screenwriter Doug Atchison (Akeelah and the Bee) fit all the characters and pieces of Banks jumbled life into an easy-to-decipher script. Maybe too easy. Son, mom, accuser, mentors. The California Innocence Project also joins the mix – a non-profit that helps wrongfully–convicted prisoners, led in the film by Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear). Other supporting characters (new girlfriend, skeptical prosecutor, accuser’s stubborn mom) augment the cast. But the focus remains Banks – his sorrow, integrity, courageousness and perseverance.
Given a story that sells itself, one might assume that filmmaker Tom Shadyac (The Nutty Professor) would have an easy time directing a movie powered by its own natural thrust. Yet, his plodding direction slows things down. The footage (Ricardo Diaz, cinematographer) comes off bland and lacks both style and eye-catching composition.
Shadyac fails to get the cast’s emotions to rise to a level of desperation that piques attention. Everything seems average. Smart, intuitive directors (e.g. Sidney Lumet “Q & A,”) find ways to lift urban dramas off the page and turn them into compelling films that are more than the sum of their parts. Not the case here.
Big question: “Why is Aldis Hodge in a so-so movie like this?” His deft interpretation of the character, the raw emotion he displays and the solid screen persona he creates crown his performance. He saves the film. At this point in his career, Hodges should be starring in far bigger projects than this. He should be one of the Avengers, vying for parts Denzel Washington has aged out of and up for roles that lead to Oscars. He’s that good.
If this well-meant film has a saving grace, besides its message of resilience, its Hodges’ powerful performance. He’s an Oscar-caliber actor in need of an Oscar-caliber film.
Banks’ story serves as a cautionary tale in an era where a false accusation can ruin a career. It shows that harm that can be done when well-intentioned advocates believe an accuser before hearing all the facts. Also, Banks’ predicament clearly indicates why parents should be in the room when their offspring negotiate plea deals with public defenders. For a multitude of reasons, Banks’ experience should be seen and shared.