I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The railroading of African-American boys and men by the US legal system. The injustices of overcrowded courts, overworked defense attorneys, and overused plea-bargaining. The legalistic hoops that must be jumped through and Catch-22s that must be untangled, and often cannot be, in the attempts to undo the cruelty of wrongful imprisonment. There’s a lot here to make the thinking, compassionate citizen furious, but despite a passionate and engaging central performance by the charming and charismatic Aldis Hodge (Hidden Figures, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), Brian Banks never quite manages to be the gripping drama it wants to be… and needs to be.
Told in a sadly familiar way, this sadly familiar tale gets a little lost in melodrama and in indulging the capital-I Inspirational. Getting angry might have served it better, for the true story it tells is infuriating. In 2002, in California, hugely promising high-school football player Brian Banks was accused of a crime he did not commit — there is no question about this — and the subsequent six-year prison sentence he received derailed the career in the NFL he was barreling toward. It almost goes without saying that Banks is African-American.
This docudrama picks up his story after Banks, now in his 20s, has been released from prison but is serving a five-year parole, and just as the new indignity of wearing an ankle monitor is introduced as a requirement of his sentence. Banks had been in touch with the California Innocence Project (CIP) before, while incarcerated, but the organization — which works to help free those wrongly imprisoned — had turned him down. Now, he tries again to secure their help to hopefully clear his name and get on with his life: his felony record means he can’t find even a menial job, and playing football is out of the question.
Director Tom Shadyac, best known for outrageous comedy (Bruce Almighty) and outrageous schmaltz (Patch Adams), mostly tempers his instincts for the over-the-top; there’s only a teensy bit of awkwardly on-the-nose speechifying to be found here. But the script, by Doug Atchison (Akeelah and the Bee), overreaches in its search for spiritual succor and redemption. A desire on Banks’s part to let go of anger and animosity over the unfairnesses he has suffered is a perfectly understandable one, and there’s certainly something appealing to be found in the pragmatic philosophy that Brian acquires in prison — from a teacher played in a small role by an uncredited Morgan Freeman (Alpha, Going in Style) — about finding resilience in adversity, in learning how to let go of resentment, and in discovering the best way to grow from a scared boy into a thoughtful, sensitive man while in prison.
(It may have been a mistake on Shadyac’s part, however, to have the 30something Hodge play the 16-year-old Banks in flashbacks to the incident in which he is alleged to have committed his crime. One big issue with the US justice system is in how it treats African-American children as grownups… and, indeed, the teen Banks was charged as an adult even though he was a minor. Casting a younger actor as the younger Banks would have underscored that he was most definitely still a child in a way that having the obviously adult Hodge enacting those scenes undercuts.)
Of course it’s good for Brian’s own personal well-being to not hold onto negativity even as he never gives up his battle to redeem himself in the eyes of the law. But Brian Banks could have used a different kind of outrageous: a furious, bitter kind of outrage could have and should have been brought to bear by the film on Banks’s behalf. Greg Kinnear (Heaven Is for Real, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) as the head of the CIP is as terrific as he always is, but even he brings mostly only resigned disillusionment with the criminal-justice system.
America is long past time for a reckoning with its own racism and corruption, and the urgent necessity of the film’s message — that United States criminal justice needs immediate and sweeping reform — ends up nowhere near incensed enough. It unfortunately casts Banks’s own gentle toughness as perhaps too accommodating of injustice, too willing to forgive. And while it might not be the job of any given individual to push back against even the wrongs done to him — though Banks makes it clear that its subject, in real life, now works with the CIP — it should absolutely be the job of a movie like this to take up that mantle.