If you saw Brian Banks in the weight room or you had a brief conversation with him while waiting in a coffee line, your first impression might well be:
That guy’s got it made.
Handsome, athletically gifted, hardworking, charming, smart, warm … instantly likable, seemingly bursting with potential.
But if you heard Brian Banks’ story, you’d quickly realize he’s a prisoner of his past — and either your heart would ache for the grave injustice done to him, or you’d steer clear from him because you’re not sure if there’s a violent, threatening presence lurking within him.
Based on the true story of a promising football prospect whose life was destroyed when he was accused of a crime he did not commit and spent six years in prison, “Brian Banks” is never subtle in the telling and occasionally overdoes it with one impassioned speech after another, but it’s an inspirational and uplifting story featuring a powerful lead performance by Aldis Hodge in the lead role.
We’ve seen Hodge’s talent in films such as “Straight Outta Compton” and “Hidden Figures.” With “Brian Banks,” he leaves zero doubt about his potential to be a bona fide movie star.
Although dealing with entirely different subject matter, “Brian Banks” continually reminded me of “Erin Brockovich” in tone and structure, and in the basic traits of certain key supporting players.
Sure, there are times when we’re aware our emotions are being manipulated — but we’re fine with that, because we want to see, and we expect to see, the heroic underdog triumph against nearly insurmountable odds.
At 16, Brian Banks is a star football player at Long Beach Polytechnic High School who has attracted the interest of numerous major college programs, including USC. He is a solid student, a good teammate, a loving son to his hardworking single mother (Sherri Shepherd). The future is unlimited.
But everything unravels in a shocking flash after a classmate accuses Brian of raping her in a remote stairwell on campus. (As we see in flashback sequences, nothing of the sort actually happened.)
Investigators don’t even bother to visit the scene of the alleged crime, nor do they interview a number of potential witnesses. Brian is to be tried as an adult. His lawyer advises him to take a deal and plead no contest, and he probably won’t have to serve any time.
Wrong. The judge sentences him to six years in prison.
Even after Brian is released, he can’t play football because he has to wear an ankle monitor, he can’t go anywhere near a public park or a school because he is a registered sex offender, and he can’t find work because of his record.
As Brian puts it, he’s still in prison, every day of his life.
Even though it’s nearly impossible to get a judge to hear an appeal in a case such as Brian’s, let alone overturn the ruling and wipe the slate clean, Brian works tirelessly to explore every possible avenue. His persistence finally wears down the attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear in a solid performance), the head of the California Innocence Project, an organization devoted to righting horrific legal injustice.
Brooks takes the case — but every step of the way, he cautions Brian not to get his hopes up, because they’ll most likely never even get in front of a judge.
Morgan Freeman cameos as a prison teacher/counselor who pleads with Brian to let go of his anger and says the only thing one can control in life is how one RESPONDS to life. Melanie Liburd does beautiful work as a possible romantic interest for Brian.
Shepherd delivers a stirring speech at a point where it seems as if Brian’s last hope has been dashed. Yes, the circumstances in which it occurs are pure Hollywood, but it’s impossible not to be moved by a mother’s ferocious love for her son, and the unimaginable pain she feels at seeing what has happened to him all because of a terrible, terrible lie.
“Brian Banks” almost never surprises us. We know where the story is going. (If it didn’t go a certain way, there would be no movie.) Still, it’s a well-constructed, well-acted, solidly told tale.