'Brian Banks': Film Review | LAFF 2018

Courtesy of LA Film Festival
Splendid actor illuminates a touchy issue.

Aldis Hodge plays a young man falsely accused of rape in a drama directed by comedy maestro Tom Shadyac.

The only thing wrong with Brian Banks, a powerful film that had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival, is the moment at which it appears. For 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. The opposite of a #MeToo movie, Brian Banks is definitely swimming against the current. Once some time elapses, the film (which is seeking distribution) may well be more fully appreciated.

Even if this comprises just a small minority, there are examples of men falsely accused of sex crimes. The California Innocence Project, which has exonerated and helped to free a number of people in prison, was initially reluctant to handle Banks’ case, partly (but not exclusively) because of a sensitivity about blaming the victim for sexual assault. But the legal team eventually did agree to represent him, partly at the urging of a female attorney in their office. The young woman who had accused Banks ultimately recanted her testimony, and Banks was able to reclaim his life.

Despite the political minefield that it traverses, this movie 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. Hodge has attracted some attention on the TV series Underground and in the feature films Straight Outta Compton and Hidden Figures, but his superb work in this movie will bring him a whole new level of acclaim.

Brian Banks was a promising football player at a Long Beach, California, high school when he met a female student in a secluded hallway for a rendezvous. Their encounter never went very far, but she charged him with rape, and he was arrested. His lawyer persuaded him to accept a plea deal, but he was shocked to receive a six-year prison term, followed by the requirement to register as a sex offender and wear a monitoring device for the length of his parole. Since this drastically limited his employment opportunities and also scotched his dreams of a pro football career, Banks decided to approach attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) of the California Innocence Project to clear his name. In the film, Brooks informs Banks that he will need new evidence to persuade the courts to reopen the case. This proves to be challenging, but when the woman who accused him contacts him on social media, he realizes that he may be able to persuade her to revise or recant her original testimony. 

Although some of these events may sound improbable, most of them are true (though the name of the female accuser has been changed). Banks was eventually exonerated and even managed to fulfill his dream of playing pro football, becoming the oldest player ever to join the NFL. No doubt the film (written by Doug Atchison) takes a few liberties with history, but the important point is that it plays convincingly and compellingly. Helmer Tom Shadyac was known primarily as a comedy director on such films as Liar Liar, The Nutty Professor and Bruce Almighty, but he had not directed a narrative feature for 11 years before making this picture. Although it is at times a little too slick, it is also undeniably effective and moving.

Shadyac keeps the movie hurtling forward, but his primary achievement here is with the actors. Xosha Roquemore as the confused young accuser manages to find the humanity in what might have been a purely hateful character. Sherri Shepherd as Brian’s mother and Melanie Liburd as his romantic interest (who provides a bit of balance by speaking about her own past experience with sexual abuse) both give sympathetic performances. Kinnear does some of his best work in years; he captures the empathy but also the impatience and occasional ruthlessness of an idealist who is forced to choose his causes sparingly. Morgan Freeman (who played God in Shadyac’s Bruce Almighty and its follow-up, Evan Almighty) brings gravitas to the small but compelling role of Brian’s prison counselor. (Freeman, who has also come under fire recently for sexual misdeeds, is uncredited in the film.)

But Hodge’s performance is what keeps Brian Banks on track. He is powerful in scenes of anger, but he may be even better in purely silent moments where his unspoken reactions are eloquent. In the prison scenes, Hodges convinces us that we are watching a bitter, brutalized man, and he conveys this without any verbal explosions. The pain he feels when the woman he wants to date recoils on learning of his background is heartrending without falling over into bathos. This is beautifully subtle film acting, and audiences should be exposed to his fine work. Beyond this, if the film contributes to ongoing and necessary dialogue about sexual misconduct, it will have served its purpose.

Production companies: ShivHans Pictures, Gidden Media
Cast: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Xosha Roquemore, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont, Jose Miguel Vasquez, Morgan Freeman
Director: Tom Shadyac
Screenwriter: Doug Atchison
Producers: Amy Baer, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson
Executive producers: Justin Brooks, Brian Banks, Neil Strum, Tirrell Whittley, Derrick Tseng
Director of photography: Ricardo Diaz
Production designer: Teresa Mastropierro
Costume designer: Amanda Ford
Editor: Greg Hayden
Venue: LA Film Festival
Music: John Debney

100 minutes