If you’re like me and you’ve been watching a significant amount of pre-season NFL football you’ve probably seen the trailer for a little film called “Brian Banks”. Based on a true story, this biographical drama hasn’t exactly had the most aggressive marketing campaign and may become a forgotten entry in 2019’s filmography, but an intriguing and timely story, especially in the midst of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, was enough for me to give this film a shot. The fact that it’s a drama directed by comedy specialist Tom Shadyac of “Ace Ventura” and “Bruce Almighty” fame also intrigued me seeing as it’s a departure from his normal material. So, let’s dive in and see if this biopic is worth more attention than it’s likely to get. This is my review of “Brian Banks”.
“Brian Banks” puts the spotlight on the titular real-life character portrayed by Aldis Hodge. Banks was a high school standout football star whose career was sidelined when he was 16 and falsely accused of raping a classmate leading him to years in prison after a botched plea deal. The film picks up with Banks on parole and now a registered sex offender which limits him from ever chasing his NFL dreams. Banks learns of The California Innocence Project, a group dedicated to defending wrongfully convicted criminals and having their cases overturned. Banks connects with Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) the head lawyer of the CIP, who works with his team to prove that Banks was innocent in an attempt to overturn the organization’s first case involving a criminal that had been released from prison. Meanwhile, Banks attempts to seek out new evidence crucial to overturning his conviction and giving him back his life and his dreams.
“Brian Banks” has an interesting story based on the real-life struggles of its titular character whose NFL hopes were shattered by a classmate’s decision to accuse Banks of rape rather than take responsibility for their actions. But here’s the main problem right away…there’s not a lot of story to tell. The real-life experiences of Banks were relatively low on drama and suspense, which means the movie has to make up for that with dialogue, pacing and narrative structure all of which feel tolerable but messy. It’s clear that the filmmakers tried to stretch a story with little meat on its bones into a feature-length, inspirational journey and while it does achieve the desired effect this approach waters down the true impact and significance of Banks’ struggles. To the film’s credit, it could have gone the opposite direction. With so many themes that could be tackled by this one story if handled properly, “Brian Banks” could have gone way over the top and felt preachy and pretentious. It’s good that it didn’t go to those limits but ironically the fact that the film just kind of feels satisfied riding the middle road makes it a pretty simplistic attempt at capturing complex ideas and struggles. A more focused and inspired approach to this story probably would have made “Brian Banks” feel like a more complete and worthy film adaptation.
But that’s not to say it’s unwatchable. “Brian Banks” does produce some sincere and heartbreaking performances including an incredibly committed take on the titular footballer by Aldis Hodge of “Straight Outta Compton” and “Hidden Figures” fame. Hodge provides a deep and, at times, very moving portrayal of a man who feels he has no control of his life. Hodge’s performance sells this movie and drives home the frustration that the real Brian Banks probably felt just trying to return to the normality of his life before the smallest of mistakes and a selfish classmate destroyed him. But it’s not just the star performance that makes “Brian Banks” a worthy if generic film. The narrative puts an important focus on the issue of false rape accusations but does so without demonizing or downplaying the importance of reporting legitimate rape. “Brian Banks” addresses how false accusations, especially ones for financial gain, can destroy lives and even changes the name of the accuser to Kennisha Rice (played by Xosha Roquemore) instead of using the real accusers name basically saying the point isn’t to demonize the true criminal but rather to shed light on how the court of public opinion and even the courts themselves often overlook when someone is taking advantage of their power to corrupt the system. To me, it’s a message that needs to be seen even if it’s a difficult truth to swallow and while “Brian Banks” doesn’t go nearly as deep into the issue as it should have, it does at least get the point across.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this film in a neat side story that tells of how Bank survived being in prison, a place he never should have been, without losing his faith in the world or allowing it to corrupt him. While uncredited for the role, Morgan Freeman plays a real-life figure from Banks’ time in jail that helped inspire him to respond to life rather than let life destroy him. While there are some important themes in this movie, this is the true inspirational core of the film. “Brian Banks” tells the story of a man who never gave up and through faith, hope, perseverance, and an unwillingness to back down despite the walls in front of him fought for what he deserved in life…freedom and peace. This idea is handled without being too preachy or avoiding elements like religious that were essential to Banks’ life experience. It never says “this is how you win in life” it simply shows how Banks won in life despite the odds. He did it his way with a little help from people who believed in him. While we get a lot of movies every year that try to show these schmaltzy messages, “Brian Banks’” benefits from a real-life story that naturally drives that inspiration home. Yes, it’s maybe too sentimental for its own good sometimes, but a little schmaltz goes a long way especially in a story like this that kind of needs it to fit the runtime.
Watching “Brian Banks” I couldn’t help but feel it was just a simple and generically made film, but it’s not unwatchable. It’s no work of art and the script and narrative aren’t always as subtle or gripping as they should be but when you look at films that try to force a simple story into a feature-length narrative “Brian Banks” is far from the worst attempt. It’s one of those films that does just enough to be interesting and engaging, but not quite enough to be as important, insightful, or inspirational as it wants to be. I’m glad Banks’ story got told. I’m glad that his life has turned around after the results of his efforts, and I’m genuinely disappointed that his NFL dreams were destroyed by the act of a single person who probably had good intentions for herself to start but ended up being living proof of why guilty until proven innocent is one of the most destructive perspectives in American society. Fueled by that sentiment and a sincere performance by Aldis Hodge, “Brian Banks” may not win any awards, but it’s a harmless and watchable biographical drama that I’m glad I got the chance to enjoy.