Brian Banks (Tom Shadyac, 2018) begins and ends with football imagery. The poster and DVD cover put the gridiron game at the forefront of the viewer’s mind, but the bulk of the film’s narrative content frames it as less of a sports inspirational and more of a criticism of the criminal justice system via one man’s odyssey in trying to clear his name of a crime he did not commit. One could argue that the tug-of-war between the conventions of the football film and the prison film ultimately acquiesce to the redemption theme inherent in sports films as a whole, but this Brian Banks is based on a true story, thus, the title character’s triumphs are due to real life and not a genre’s tropes.
Adrianna Valentin © Bleecker Street
The first ten minutes of the film establishes that Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) is on parole and according to his parole officer (Dorian Missick), a new Sacramento law means “that all 290 registrants who are currently on parole must wear one of these” — a GPS-enabled ankle tracking monitor that cannot be removed, must be worn 24/7, and be charged in the morning and in the evening. Parolees have to stay in LA County and they “cannot be within 2,000 feet of a school or a park.” The consequences of this new law mean that Brian Banks can no longer play football at Long Beach City College, at least according to his parole officer, who tells him to “forget about football” because “boyhood dreams have no place in a man’s life.”
The proceeding sequences demonstrate his willingness to apply to whatever jobs he can to gain employment, but interview after interview yields no offers, which isn’t surprising for a convicted felon — even one who is innocent. Going into this film without knowing details about what Brian did that landed him in prison in the first place, I was keen to discover how and when this information would be revealed. The first part of the story is conveyed after Brian’s mother (Sherri Shepherd) encourages him to write to the California Innocence Project again, focusing not on the details of his case but on himself. A montage sequence illustrates the voice-over narration of his second letter to Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), who heads up the organization:
Dear Mr. Brooks,
I’m writing to you again in the hope that the California Innocence Project will reconsider my case. I know you hear from a lot of people. But maybe if you got to know me, you might reconsider. Let me state clearly and unequivocally, I am innocent. I spent six years in prison and the past three on parole for a sex offense that I did not commit.
I wrote you two years ago from CMC and you turned me down. But I don’t stay down, not for long. I learned that in prison, and I learned it growing up too. You see, I played a lot of football when I was young, and it wasn’t all ice cream and pizza parties. No, sir. I had a different walk home. Life in Long Beach was for real and it was hard to see a way out, but football gave me a way out. It taught me discipline and dedication, and strangely, it gave me faith, because my mom said my talent was God-given. So each night I promised to give something back in return.
By the time I was 16, I wasn’t just your average high school football player. I was what they called a “sure thing.” I played middle linebacker on one of the best teams in the country. We had two thousand fans at every game, but to be honest, I only heard one. Even though I was just a sophomore, I had the attention of the media and the best coach in college football: Coach Pete Carroll from USC. Coach Carroll was someone I looked up to and his belief in me made a world of difference.
But all that changed on July 8th, 2002. You know that feeling you get that tells you something is off? Some say it’s the voice of God. Had I listened to that voice, we might not be here today. But I didn’t.
The montage ends with Justin Brooks looking at a picture of Brian that was included with the letter. The two men partake in a sort of pas de deux for the next chunk of the film as reluctant lawyer and determined parolee. Justin mentions a writ of habeas corpus petition and Brian files one, only to be declined, but the former is impressed and eventually agrees to officially take on the latter’s case.
Katherine Bomboy – © Bleecker Street
As the film continues, the viewer learns the rest of Brian’s story. He was leaving history class when he came across a classmate he knew from middle school, Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore). She was on her way to the bathroom across campus and he asked if she wanted him to walk with her. There was a make-out spot in a building across campus where students would go if they wanted to fool around without too much fear of being seen. As Brian is telling the law students what happened on that day, the flashback reveals that he and Kennisha kissed and were in the middle of unbuckling belts when the door a couple flights up opened. Brian stopped and told her that he was “not feeling this no more” so they should leave through different doors. The look on her face was telling: disappointment and a twinge of shame. Overtime he realized that “there’s just so many things I could have said,” such as “I didn’t want you to get in trouble” or “I just don’t think this is special enough of a place,” but he just left. And he was just 16 and “wasn’t grown up enough, and to be honest, [he] just went back to class and [he] forgot about it.”
Kennisha did not forget what happened. She wrote a note to her friend Shayla (Michelle E. Mitchell) that likely suggested she was assaulted because the cops and her mother came to school while he was at home. The police arrived at his house, dragged him out of bed, and arrested him. He called out for his mom and she called out for him as two police officers kept her in the door frame of the kitchen. Brian took a plea deal (kidnapping and sodomy charges dropped for pleading no contest to one count of rape) because it was the least of all the evils.
His attorney advised him that she’d seen his type of case many times, reminding him, “you admitted to some intimate contact, so it comes down to consent. Who’s the jury gonna believe? And did you see all those white folks out there? All they see is a big black teenager accused of rape. And if any of them end up on the jury, they’re gonna find you guilty. But if you take this deal, you are almost guaranteed probation and in three months’ time, you can be back to your family, back to your life, back to playing football. You’d be free.”
Brian only had ten minutes to decide. Since he was tried as an adult, he couldn’t talk to his mom about it. The judge informed him that his no contest plea had “the same legal effect as a plea of guilty” and he would “be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of [his] life.” After pleading no contest, what happened? Probation denied. It’s heartbreaking watching the moment unfold. It is at this point in the film that Brian Banks morphs into a football movie sewn roughly over the sinews of what could be an episode of Law & Order: SVU meets a Dateline NBC, 48 Hours, or 60 Minutes* special on the failings of the judicial system in cases of sexual assault. It is also at this point in the movie where Brian Banks could have been a teacher, an artist, a bookseller, or any other number of professionals whose freedom is snatched away, whose life is derailed because a high school girl couldn’t bear the thought of her mother thinking she was messing around with boys and whose attempts to tell what really happened were silenced by the adults around her.
It’s not a spoiler to note that Justin Brooks and his team’s efforts in getting the DA to hear Kennisha’s recounting of what happened resulted in an exoneration petition. Justin tells the courtroom and the judge (the same judge who denied Brian probation eleven years prior) it’s not just that Kennisha lied about what happened but the system didn’t care enough about the truth. Furthermore, someone has to be the enemy and shaming accusers (even false accusers) only hurts real victims, so the system has to be the enemy.
Ending title cards are cross-cut with film footage and footage of the real Brian Banks: In the summer of 2012, 27-year-old Brian attended the Seattle Seahawks mini-camp. Although Coach Pete Carroll was impressed with Brian’s abilities, his 11 year absence from football had taken a toll. He did not make the cut. Brian tried out with several other NFL teams. No team signed him. For an entire year, and with Justin’s support, Brian continued to train. The following summer, Brian was asked to participate in the Atlanta Falcons offseason workouts. In August 2013, Brian joined the team as a middle linebacker. On August 8, 2013, Brian finally fulfilled his dream of playing in the NFL. At the age of 28, he became one of the oldest rookies ever to play in an NFL game. After Brian’s exoneration, Justin Brooks had Brian’s parole violations dismissed and his record cleared. Justin co-founded the California Innocence Project in 1999. Has has successfully exonerated 27 people imprisoned for crimes they did no commit. He has never charged a cent for his services. He continues to work on the case of Marilyn Mulero…it’s been 23 years. Brian continues to work with Justin and the CIP, traveling the country and speaking on behalf of the innocent. Brian is still supported and encouraged by his mentor Jerome Johnson. They remain good friends to this day.
The ending credits include more photos of the real people depicted in this film as well as those individuals that Justin Brooks helped.
Here is Aldis Hodge with the real Brian Banks:
Katherine Bomboy – © Bleecker Street
Click here to find out what was changed for the film.
Read more about the CIP here.
Who is Marilyn Mulero?
1. Who is Jerome Johnson? He was a teacher in prison who helped Brian Banks survive emotionally and psychologically while serving his time. There’s a scene in the film where he tells the class, “Two men look out from prison bars. One saw mud, the other the stars. Perspective, gentlemen. Perspective is the key to how one fares in life.” He’s portrayed by Morgan Freeman.
2. Melanie Liburd plays Karina, a trainer at the gym where Brian’s childhood friend works. While she ends up being a source of support for him, the scene where he tells her over lunch what he was accused of doing at age 16 places her in the non-sports section of the narrative. The audio fades out and the camera focuses on her change in body language. Relaxed cordiality shifts into visible discomfort. When the audio returns, she tells him she has to go back to work. Later on in the film, she apologizes for her behavior and the viewer learns that she was assaulted by a friend in college and the university did nothing, hence her reaction.
3. Brian Banks was released in 2018. The premise and its execution ought to make it assessed like any other sports inspirational, even one that is more compelling in its look at the criminal justice system. Maybe it can be, but post-May 2020, knowing all that has happened around the world (not just with coronavirus but also with Black Lives Matter), it would be naive not to acknowledge the ramifications of aspiring to be a pro-footballer and being wrongfully convicted of a crime as a black man in America. Being wrongfully arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned can happen to anyone, yet who makes it all the way to the go straight to jail part more often than not? Moreover, one might feel conflicted about enjoying college and professional football as a spectator sport while knowing about the risks for head injuries and the commodification of the male body as spectacle. Has the playing field been evened out somewhat between the sexes in this regard? (Also consider the objectification of Olympic athlete bodies).
4. I personally do not like stories about people who are falsely accused of any crime they did not commit unless the accuser is punished satisfactorily for their lying, so when I came across the DVD at Barnes & Noble and Target in the last couple of months, I paid it no mind. But, I had a hankering for watching and blogging about a football movie and Aldis Hodge is an incredible actor, as evidenced in Clemency, so I went for it. I’m glad I did.
5. I haven’t seen anything featuring Greg Kinnear in quite a while. After watching his performance in this film, I’m inclined to believe that he is similar to Julianne Moore and Mads Mikkelsen in the way he can convince me that he is whatever occupation of the character he’s playing.
* 60 Minutes did follow the case.
Pic creds: imdb, Bleeker Street