By Leslie C. Halpern
This dramatic biopic begins and ends with the concept of freedom and what it means to one young man, a rising football player named Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge).
The film begins with a flashback of Banks as a youngster playing football in an open field with neighborhood friends, feeling safe and free. From there, the movie jumps back and forth in time as we see Banks (at age 16) promised a full-ride athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, which he loses after a false rape charge by a female acquaintance at high school.
A Broken Legal System
A victim of the broken legal system, he is directed by his attorney to plead no-contest, and is sentenced to six years in prison with five years of parole. Meanwhile, his 15-year-old accuser, Kennisha, (portrayed with alarmingly callous disregard by Xosha Roquemore) receives $1.5 million from suing the school system (under her mother’s direction) for not providing a safe environment. With that much money at stake, she has no intention of recanting her testimony, despite learning of how the conviction has devastated Banks’s schooling, career plans, and personal life.
We see flashbacks to high school and prison (where Banks is mentored by a wise teacher [Morgan Freeman] to control his response to life even when life is out of control), and current scenes where Banks attempts to interest the California Innocence Project in helping to clear his name.
California Innocence Project
Led by Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), the organization enlists the aid of a group of legal professionals to help exonerate people charged with crimes they didn’t commit. Their emphasis is on those who are currently imprisoned, so Banks (now free, but on parole, after serving his time) is a low-priority. However, Banks is insistent. Not only was he wrongly charged, convicted, and sentenced, but he’s further punished by not being able to get a decent job or find a romantic partner because of the rape conviction.
The story is gripping and the acting impressive. Hodge has the physical presence to portray a rising athlete (as the younger and older versions of himself), and his accuser is portrayed as a mindless, heartless young woman by Roquemore. Though in some ways a stereotype, Kennisha needed to be portrayed as someone lacking insight and depth; otherwise her actions would not have made sense. Kinnear provides his usual reliable performance as the over-worked, jaded doo-gooder who needs his conscience prodded to do good in this case.
Director Tom Shadyac, whose recent work leans more toward the spiritual, presents a well-intended story that loses some of its edge with frequent disorienting shifts back and forth through time. Those who are unfamiliar with the details of the case may find the film particularly moving.
Based on a true story, high school football star Brian Banks is wrongly convicted of a sex crime that lands him in prison and ruins his chances for a career in sports until the California Innocence Project finally takes an interest in his case.
- Stars: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosha Roquemore, Morgan Freeman
- Director: Tom Shadyac
- Writer: Doug Atchison
- Genre: Biographical Drama
- Run Time: 99 minutes
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content and related images, and for language)
Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.