If I didn’t have kids and still went to the theater, I would rush to see Just Mercy. Based on a true story, the movie follows lawyer Bryan Stevenson as he works to free the wrongly condemned or unfairly sentenced from death row. It’s a well-attested fact that there is a massive imbalance in our justice system along racial lines, with African Americans facing higher incarceration rates and steeper penalties than Caucasians accused of similar crimes. This imbalance extends to the death penalty, to which African Americans are disproportionately and often incorrectly sentenced. Stephenson demands we do something about it. I won’t mince words: Stephenson is incredibly inspiring, his book Just Mercy is an absolute must-read, and his organization (Equal Justice Initiative) merits your support. And Stevenson’s tireless efforts extended to the establishment of a lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama which (according to the website) is “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” Heavy, but vastly important stuff.
In a similar under-appreciated quest for justice, Justin Brooks started the California Innocence Project in 1999 to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and change state laws and policies. His efforts were adapted to the screen in the movie Brian Banks, released last year. While this movie received less social media buzz than Just Mercy (at least among my circles), it starred Greg Kinnear as Justin Brooks which meant I watched it. And I’m very glad I did.
Brian Banks (2019)
Directed by Tom Shadyac, we need an immediate side bar. Shadyac is known for low-brow comedies that usually star Jim Carrey, including Ace Ventura, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty. In 2007, Shadyac suffered a life-altering cycling accident that caused him to rethink the meaning of life. He sold his mansion, donated the proceeds, and made a documentary called I Am decrying materialism and promoting the semi-scientific, quasi-spiritual notion that we’re all connected. Then, Shadyac couldn’t find directorial work for nearly a decade before making Brian Banks as his comeback movie. Suffice it to say, a blog called “Shadyac, Meshach, & Abedgnego” exploring Shadyac’s filmography could be highly interesting.
Based on a true story, Brian Banks‘s titular character (played by Aldis Hodge) was a rising football star at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach before he was falsely accused of rape. The facts are these:
One day, he and a classmate (renamed Kennisha for the movie) snuck down a hallway busy with ongoing classes and made out in a stairwell (nothing more). They heard someone coming and fled the scene. Possibly embarrassed, Kennisha accused Banks of kidnapping & rape and he was arrested. Banks was encouraged by his lawyer to accept a plea bargain, pleading ‘no contest’ to rape in exchange for dropping the kidnapping charge and in hope of a short probation. Instead, Banks was sentenced to five years in prison plus three years on parole and made to register as a sex offender.
The movie picks up in Banks’s last year of parole (with much of the above narrative told through flashbacks). He is struggling to find employment, because he is a sex offender and can’t work within 2,000 feet of playgrounds, carnivals, and other places with kids. He tries to (and later does) start a rocky relationship with Karina Cooper (a fictional character played by Melanie Liburd), but she initially judges him for his past.
Discouraged by his lot in life, Banks contacts Justin Brooks (played by Greg Kinnear) at California Innocence Project (CIP) to help clear his name. Justin initially refuses to help, because Banks (A) is already out of prison and (B) needs new evidence to file a writ of habeas corpus to get a new trial. Banks chose not to use DNA evidence that exonerates him when he took the plea bargain, so the new evidence must be even more “extraordinary.” Banks files a writ of habeas corpus anyways (it’s denied), and continues to pester Justin. Eventually, Justin sends members of his legal team to search for new evidence but they come up empty.
Up a creek without a paddle, Banks is unexpectedly contacted by Kennisha on Facebook. She agrees to meet with him at the office of an insurance agent. Banks videotapes this meeting without her knowledge, where she admits that he did not rape her. He immediately shows the video to Justin and his legal team. They agree the video is extraordinary, but since Kennisha didn’t know she was being taped the evidence is inadmissible.
Banks gives a motivational speech saying he’s busted his ass to clear his name and now it’s Justin’s turn. Motivated, Justin kicks it into high gear. Justin bends the ear of the DA to Brian’s case and hints to Banks that he could release the videotape to the media. Banks does, and it has the intended effect of drawing Kennisha to the courthouse. She meets with Justin and the DA where she sticks to her rape story but says just enough to imply it wasn’t kidnapping. Justin and the DA bring this before the judge and it is sufficient to exonerate Brian Banks! The movie ends with a powerful montage of several wrongly incarcerated individuals who have been exonerated through the work of CIP.
As a movie, Brian Banks is at its best when focusing on the case. Aldis Hodge gives a strong, earnest performance that emphasizes how hard Banks worked to clear his name. Likewise, the depiction of CIP as it operates to overcome systemic injustices is engrossing and informative. Their success rate is shockingly low (~30 individuals freed out of thousands) and I can imagine the discouragement that fills the long days between victories. Finally, the movie fairly portrays Kennisha. It largely avoids speculation as to why Kennisha made up her rape story, while instead focusing on the systemic injustices that harshly sentenced Banks despite a lack of evidence. The real-life Brooks & Banks freely say they did not want to vilify Kennisha in the movie or encourage a posture of disbelief towards female victims.
On the other hand, Brian Banks is at its worst when it focuses on character drama. Scenes where Brian talks with Karina, his mom (played by Sherri Shepherd), or God-like prison mentor (played unsurprisingly by Morgan Freeman) are infused with exaggerated sentimentality characteristic of religious movies like War Room or Heaven is for Real. The play for the religious audience is so pervasive that some scenes are filmed with “divine light” penetrating small windows to illuminate a kneeling & contrite Banks. The movie also plays up the idea that Banks would have been an NFL star if his football career wasn’t derailed by his conviction. I understand the emotional power of this message, but even the best football prospects flame out in the NFL.
2019 marked a five-film renaissance for Greg Kinnear, his highest number of movies in a year since 2006. I can semi-confidently declare that Greg’s performance in Brian Banks is the best of the five. It’s definitely better than Greg in Phil who’s better than Greg in Strange But True who I assume is more memorable than Greg in Red Sea Diving Resort.
Greg’s performance in Brian Banks is one of his most underrated performances for three reasons. First, his hair is wonderful. It’s stiffly gelled upwards revealing a prominent forehead. But beyond this makeover to resemble Justin Brooks, Greg sat in on his law classes (Brooks teaches at California Western School of Law) and shadowed him to inhabit the role. Second, Greg says “habeas corpus” at least thrice. “Habeas corpus” is easily a top three phrase I’ve heard Greg say, and this is Greg’s best courtroom role yet–surpassing the likes of Flash of Genius and Dear God.
Third (and the real reason this performance is underrated), Greg’s performance covers a broad range. We see “reluctant Greg” who maintains a sympathetic but firm demeanor as he initially refuses to help Banks. Then, we see “office Greg” as he exudes major dad vibes while training lawyers in his classroom and at CIP. As the movie tells it, Greg’s trainees form a “Banks fan club” that bugs Greg with a daughter-like persistence until he humors them and takes the case.
We also see “sing-song Greg” as he plays the guitar and sings at a charity event. Someone really needs to give Greg a major musical role because teasing us with short songs here, in Stuck on You, and as Greg Catnear just isn’t enough. Finally, we see “feisty Greg” as he kicks it into action by working the DA, coaching Banks, and prompting Kennisha to come to the courthouse. Greg brings the perfect persistent, feisty, but kind lawyer energy to his courthouse meeting with the DA and Kennisha. Through all “Greg modes,” he maintains a strong on-screen dynamic with Aldis Hodge (i.e., Banks) that make their scenes some of the best.
- Here’s the link to donate to Equal Justice Initiative. Here’s the link to donate to the California Innocence Project (CIP). Striving to free the unjustly incarcerated is tireless work that merits your support.
- The movie Brian Banks tells an important story about systemic injustices behind the conviction of an innocent teenager, profiles an important organization (CIP), and features strong performances from Hodge, Kinnear, & Shepherd.
- Greg Kinnear delivers one of his most underrated performances as Justin Brooks, founder and director of CIP. His hair, pronunciation of “habeas corpus,” and wide acting range are top-notch.
- Next-up: I love McDonald’s, but it’s time for Fast Food Nation.
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