The timing could hardly be worse for “Brian Banks,” a well-meaning and emotionally engaging movie about the California Innocence Project’s incredible battle to exonerate a Long Beach football player who lost 11 years of his life to prison and parole after a high school classmate falsely accused him of rape. Independently made and still seeking distribution, the compelling biopic — a stark departure from lowbrow studio comedies for “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” director Tom Shadyac — faces an uphill path not unlike the one CIP lawyer Justin Brooks (played here by Greg Kinnear) accepted when he took Banks’ case (a chance-of-a-lifetime role for Aldis Hodge).
In a sign that this solid social-justice drama stands apart from current events — an exceptional case that neither contradicts nor enhances the #MeToo movement — “Brian Banks” was met with multiple standing ovations at its L.A. Film Festival premiere, even as the nation’s attention was turned to claims of attempted rape and sexual misconduct brought against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and the imminent sentencing of Bill Cosby for drugging and assaulting one of many women who leveled such charges against him. Still, while “Brian Banks” went on to win LAFF’s audience award, the question remains: Is this the movie the world needs now, one that casts doubt on survivor testimony and feeds a misogynistic culture’s fear that “good” men can have their lives destroyed by such accusations (while failing to acknowledge how sexual assault can do the same to its targets)?
Needless to say, it’s not that simple. “Brian Banks” is by no means an apologia for sexual aggression, and no one would mistake it as such. If anything, this true story of an isolated case illustrates how infinitely complicated the issue of rape can be, demonstrating how systemic problems — most notably race- and class-based prejudices — result in someone like Banks being treated differently from people of privilege. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, for every 1,000 sexual assaults, only six of the perpetrators are incarcerated, but there’s a second statistic that Shadyac is focused on here: An estimated 94% of state felony convictions result from plea bargains, anywhere between 2-8% of whom are actually innocent. So, while rape charges should absolutely be taken seriously, California’s clogged legal system never intended to give him a fair trial. Contrast Banks’ sentence (following a no contest plea) with college swimmer Brock Turner’s and the injustice becomes egregious.
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This is no paycheck project for Shadyac, directing his first narrative feature in more than a decade. Films such as “Patch Adams” and “Bruce Almighty” may have made him rich and famous, but in 2007, the successful Hollywood director suffered a nasty concussion following a bicycle-riding accident, which inspired him to reevaluate his priorities. Shadyac pledged to refocus his attention in a more positive way, and here we find the born-again filmmaker showing a greater aptitude for relatively nuanced drama than he ever did in the comedy arena, even while operating at a fraction of his usual budget.
“Brian Banks” may be a football player’s underdog story, but this is no conventional sports movie. Shot primarily in Memphis by indie DP Ricardo Diaz (whose crisp widescreen lensing distinguishes material more often encountered on TV), the film opens on kids playing a pickup game in an inner-city park — one of the many spaces a convicted sex offender is forbidden from going near. Football made Banks popular, and he had been recruited to play for USC when fellow Long Beach Polytechnic student Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore) suggested they go to a remote stairwell on campus to make out.
The film’s effective, no-frills script, from “Akeelah and the Bee” writer-director Doug Atchison, doesn’t reveal what happened right away, but neither does it leave room for ambiguity regarding the events in question: The reenactment makes clear that Banks could not have kidnapped and raped Rice (whose real name was Wanetta Gibson) as she claimed, and further shows that investigators would have realized that if they’d bothered to visit the site where the incident allegedly took place. So why does Rice claim that she was raped? That’s a mystery it will take Banks 11 years to answer. In court, where he was tried as an adult, the 16-year-old was given 10 minutes to accept a plea deal — a decision that scandalously results in more or less the same sentence a guilty verdict would have gotten, costing him a full scholarship and professional football career. (Meanwhile, Gibson and her mother sued the school for a lack of security, getting $1.5 million.)
Having served his time, Banks knows it won’t be easy to establish his innocence in a system that’s stacked against him. He has a firm-but-fair parole officer (Dorian Missick) tracking his every move via ankle monitor, making it difficult for him to leave the county to plead his case to Brooks, a college professor and pro-bono criminal defense attorney who ultimately yields after two female clerks in his office convince him to accept Banks’ case. Meanwhile, given his status as a felon, Banks finds it virtually impossible to apply for jobs, and dating is equally challenging when he’s not allowed to go near many public places. Plus, there’s the matter of how to bring up his past to Karina (Melanie Liburd), a flirtatious personal trainer who is herself a survivor of sexual assault — although her subplot goes a long way toward adding dimension to the conversations the film will inevitably inspire.
So, where do Shadyac and Atchison expect audiences to direct their frustration at such a miscarriage of justice? Well, that’s what makes “Brian Banks” special: It is not an angry film, but one that preaches forgiveness in the face of such adversity. Interwoven throughout the film are flashbacks to an inspirational figure Banks met during his first year in prison, a counselor played by an uncredited Morgan Freeman (who has himself been accused of harassment). His mantra: “All you can control in life is how you respond to life.”
That message speaks just as powerfully to sexual abuse survivors as it does to someone like Banks, reminding — as the movie shows — that when those more powerful than us attempt to crush our spirit, we can suffer in silence or fight to be heard. And despite the fact the system is broken, all but engineered to ignore such voices, it can and must be challenged.