'Brian Banks' Stars, Director on Releasing a Film About a Man Falsely Accused of Rape in the #MeToo Era
Actors Aldis Hodge and Greg Kinnear and helmer Tom Shadyac discuss the issue of criminal justice reform that they hope the movie illuminates and the work they did with the people involved in the true story.
[The following story contains spoilers from Brian Banks.]
When Bleecker Street's new film Brian Banks first had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival almost a year ago, when then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was facing accusations of sexual misconduct, The Hollywood Reporter's review raved that the "powerful film…deserves to be shown — partly because it will stimulate more dialogue on a controversial subject, and also because it showcases outstanding performances, especially a career-defining portrayal by Aldis Hodge in the title role." But critic Stephen Farber cautioned that the film's timing may be problematic.
"This movie about a young woman who makes a false charge of sexual assault against a teenage classmate is not exactly primed to win an appreciative audience at a time when men (including a Supreme Court nominee) are vehemently denying charges of sexual misconduct," Farber wrote. "The opposite of a #MeToo movie, Brian Banks is definitely swimming against the current."
As more reviews have come in for the film that hit theaters Friday, other critics have pointed out that a false rape claim is a touchy plot point in the #MeToo era.
In 2002, the real-life Banks was, at the age of 16, accused of rape by a high-school acquaintance. After pleading no contest, he spent more than five years in prison. After he was released but still on parole, his accuser contacted him and recanted her rape claim. With the help of the California Innocence Project, Banks was exonerated in 2012. All of this is portrayed in the movie, with the name of the accuser changed because, according to director Tom Shadyac, the team behind the film "didn't want any more negativity focused on her" and felt her name was less important than "the truth of what happened," Shadyac says.
The specific facts of the case are what made Hodge, Shadyac and fellow star Greg Kinnear, who plays California Innocence Project director and co-founder Justin Brooks, comfortable with their roles in the film and what they hope viewers will keep in mind.
"This case is this case. This story is this story, and people are going to have to go into that with that in mind," Kinnear tells THR. "And I think people are reasonable. I do think that this #MeToo moment has made some real change and is hopefully making some real change. People aren't dumb; they understand both sides of that, and I kind of feel like this is a story where the guy got the wrong call — he was the victim of the wrong call."
Hodge — who notes that he grew up with women who were "sexually assaulted numerous times," making rape a "very personal" and "sensitive" issue for him and causing him to "really search" and research before taking on the role — adds, "As it relates to sexual assault, I'm very staunch in my opinion about that. No sympathy for real rapists. But the difference here is Brian is not a rapist. He's a human being who was accused of something, so you look at it from a different angle and not feel attached to the anguish that goes along with scenarios of real rape because that's not the case here."
Shadyac adds that screenwriter Doug Atchison included the character of Karina (Melanie Liburd), "a consolidation of a number of female characters that helped Brian heal," who tells Banks about her own experience with sexual assault, "to tell the other side of the story."
All three men also feel like what Banks was charged with is less important than what he experienced in the California criminal justice system.
"The most important thing to me, in the movie, is that the crime wasn't as important, for me, the specificity of the crime as to what happened to Brian once he was put inside the system," Shadyac says. "He could have been accused of theft or forgery. Once he was placed inside that system, that was really the story that we were focused on telling — that conveyor belt that just only has forward momentum."
Hodge says, "This is a film about the specificity of people not doing their job within the judicial system. Given the familiar space of the case, it is about sexual assault; however, there are people in prison for crimes they didn't commit in all facets, so this speaks to a different subject matter."
And Shadyac argues that there's a connection between women who aren't believed and people who are falsely accused of crimes.
"I think that underneath it all, someone who's been falsely accused of a crime and women who have been not respected, their voices have not been listened to, I think underneath it, it's the same thing," he says. "It's a system that doesn't see you, and I think we can meet each other there. Our judicial system is based on a beautiful idea, and that is that justice is supposed to be blind, it's supposed to seek the truth and it hasn't. It's seen a woman who's been disempowered in our society and that's dead wrong and has to change and we want to honor and respect that. The same is true for Brian. It saw a black kid, from an underserved community, someone that wasn't valuable in the eyes of that system, and it wasn't blind and it wasn't fair and he wasn't listened to. We're very sensitive to the current climate and culture. And I do think that this is a story that fits in appropriately now, we can just open the conversation up to another thread in the fabric here."
Indeed, all three men hope viewers will take away a sense of the need for criminal justice reform and possibly seek ways to take action.
"I hope that they understand that we as a society have not reached our aspirational goal of 'and justice for all,' that there are large populations in this country that are not being met with the equity of justice that we claim to be the American way," Shadyac says. "Ninety-seven percent of cases plead out. That means 97 percent of people, especially people without means and people of color, will be threatened with longer sentences and those threats lead them to take pleas for guilty convictions when they may not be guilty. It happened to Brian and it is happening far too often. The system is overrun. It can't handle the numbers. So the choice that we've made, that we've accepted, is just to dehumanize and it needs to be reimagined and reinvented. It's heartbreaking when you look at the numbers and how it happens. The system is designed to convict, it's not designed to tell the truth. I hope we can do something about it. Whatever we can do. Support an innocence project, which is in every state, or get behind some movement to change the criminal justice system."
And it was this desire to spark a discussion about changing the system that made Hodge want to take on the role of Banks.
"What made me want to do the project was just the potential for cultural shift, progressive conversations when it comes to judicial reform," he says. "What this means to Brian, what inspired me about the stories is what I wanted to give to the audience because he's so powerful in his presence and what he went through and how he went through it and how he's able to maintain his sense of self and his sense of worth. These conversations are needed. And it's great to give the CIP a platform so people can know who they are and what they do. I just wanted to be an asset to his purpose."
In order to portray Banks, Hodge trained every day before and during filming with the former high-school football star, whose career prospects and life, were derailed by the charges against him and his time behind bars. The real Banks, who serves as an executive producer on the film, was also on set to help Hodge understand his mind-set.
"As far as the mental and emotional [aspects of the character], [Brian] was just really available, when I asked him questions about what he was going through at the time, given the situation," Hodge says. "I would talk to him about every scene before we went into it and talked to him about it afterwards. Just like, 'Brother, take me back, take me through it. What was this for you? Where was your mind at here?' He was just very available and willing to allow me to explore that space. Even though he had to go back to dark areas, he was just willing to give me the tools I need to do my job."
Brooks, who also serves as an executive producer, was similarly available to Kinnear.
"He was very forthcoming," the actor says, adding that he attended one of Brooks' classes at California Western School of Law. "We had both Justin and Brian on set most days we were making this movie. When you tell a true-life story it's an incredible resource to have the real-life person there to say, 'How did this feel? What was this like? How up against the clock were you?' To just be able to get the specifics of that and understand it are really important."
The film starts after Banks has been released from jail, revealing what happened to him through Banks' words and flashbacks. Shadyac, who directs his first narrative feature in more than 10 years with this movie after he had a life-changing accident, says he and Atchison felt this nonlinear structure was key to telling Banks' story and compressing an 11-year ordeal into a 99-minute film.
"It was something that Doug, the writer, and I talked about, how to maintain momentum on the story," the director says. "He felt like his time out of jail, trying to prove his exoneration is what we wanted to focus on, all the road blocks. We certainly know people are behind bars when they're behind bars, but we don't realize how much of a prison they're in when they're trying to work in our society and trying to get work and get back to their life. We provide no tools for that to happen. Brian was so proactive in facing that difficulty — we wanted to focus on that and maintain momentum."
Kinnear says that even though Banks was technically free, when he approached the CIP, "Brian made the case that he actually was still in jail, that he couldn't go near a field because he's a registered sex offender. He couldn't pursue his dream of playing football."
Hodge says Banks' limited opportunities are what makes him keep trying to convince the CIP to help him even though he's approaching the end of his parole.
"I think he understood the best option that he had available to him because, the thing is, when every option is taken away from you or you have no options to begin with, you can't afford to stop," Hodge says. "You have to keep convincing somebody. 'Yes I'll work with you; I'll work on the case.' You don't have any other choices. It creates a different sense of ambition. It creates a different sense of work ethic because the only time people can really say stop is because they have something else, they have some other option to go to. And he couldn't afford to be that comfortable. For him, this was the best course that he could take because he knew what they were capable of. Also this was his last-ditch effort. He was very very close to his parole being up, at which time, he would've just had to live with it. He just kept fighting because he was fighting for himself, and proving his value. I think part of it might've been if he can prove his value to these people then there's a little bit of hope that he can prove his value and his innocence to the court."
Shadyac adds, "At some point, we also wanted to let people know what had happened to him in prison, that there was so much darkness but also an awakening. There was a mentor that came into his life that changed his perspective that helped him — helped to free himself, at least his mind, while he was behind bars."
Morgan Freeman plays this inspiring figure, with the veteran actor reteaming with his Bruce Almighty director Shadyac, whose hit comedy past includes directing films like fellow Jim Carrey vehicles Ace Ventura and Liar, Liar.
"Morgan was the first person I thought about when I heard about Jerome Johnson, the real teacher who changed Brian's life, and when I did research on Mr. Johnson, his rhythms and his wisdom reminded me of Morgan," the director says. "I didn't reach out to Morgan at first because we were a low-budget film, and I didn't think it was realistic that we could get him. We had hired another actor to play that role, but that actor was sick the week of filming. He had an illness and wasn't able to travel. So Morgan came in and read the script and responded to it and stepped up and did us a favor."
For Hodge, his role in Brian Banks comes amid high-profile turns in well-received projects like the Showtime series City on a Hill and the upcoming death row film Clemency.
The actor, who's been working for years, is appreciative of the positive attention and hopes to be able to use that to make a difference in the world.
"I see it as affirmation that the choices I'm trying to make, the direction I've been trying to go into, the sacrifices made along the way, are all worth it. And the right choices have been made, and I see it as a continuance of the work I need to continue doing," Hodge says. "This is a really fantastic time — best time of my career, but it's also a step, a piece of the puzzle for the bigger picture. There's something grander for why I'm here in this position. There's a real responsibility and a purpose for being here that's not just about celebrating the accolades that come along with what goes along with these projects, it's about how we use that celebration, energy, use these accolades to do something greater in the world. Right now my focus is on figuring out how to use it."