Brian Banks

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Brian Banks
"Shadyac and screenwriter Doug Atchison really over-egg the pudding."

In 2002, promising young American football player Brian Banks was falsely accused of rape. Persuaded to accept a plea bargain rather than face a possible 41 years in prison, he ended up spending five years inside only to find that, on his release, rules forbidding registered sex offenders to go near parks meant he was effectively barred from returning to his beloved sport. Tom Shadyac's film dramatises his battle to clear his name.

False accusations of this kind are very rare and receive disproportionate media attention, so it's worth noting first and foremost that this particular case was unusually clear cut. It also needs to be seen in the context of the US justice system in which young black men face disproportionate conviction rates, especially for sexual offences. The film makes a further effort to encourage a balanced perspective by including a character who has been raped and who talks about her feelings at not being able to bring her attacker to justice. Throughout, it keeps its focus very much on failures of the system rather than directing anger at Banks' accuser. It even changes her name.

Aldis Hodge, who has an impressive portfolio dating back to his 1995 appearance as one of Samuel L Jackson's kids in Die Herd With A Vengeance, is well cast in the lead. Though he and Banks don't look much alike he makes convincing use of some of Banks' mannerisms and, more importantly, he communicates the conflicting emotions going through the head of a young man in this situation. Despite the established facts, it's really him that the film depends on both to sell Banks' innocence and to make us understand why, after all he's been through, it's getting back to his sport that is the dominant concern in his life. He carries the role with a dignity that makes him easy to root for.

Providing support (but given top billing by many review platforms) is Greg Knnear as California Innocence Project lawyer Justin Brooks, whom Banks looks to for help. Their interactions provide opportunities to detail the shortcomings of California law and of the plea bargaining system. Though some of what we see happen to Banks is still disputed, one need accept only a small part of it to be horrified at the scale of the injustice. There's no doubt that this is a powerful story (and unlikely to be an isolated one) which needs to be told.

It's unfortunate, then, that in the telling Shadyac and screenwriter Doug Atchison really over-egg the pudding. The soap opera approach to courtroom drama would be laughable were the subject not so serious. There is no respect for law as a concept here. Reason is discarded as a tool in favour of big, sweeping emotional speeches which frequently bear little relevance to the facts at hand. This is a familiar feature of the US genre, it's true, but Brian Banks is a particularly egregious example. It's all so OTT and saccharine that on is left wondering what happened in the real case because this, most assuredly, cannot account for the decisions made.

The film builds its premise around the idea that Banks is special because of his sporting talent, which feels uncomfortably close to the idea that such talents give black US teenagers a special right to access further education - bad luck for those capable students or wrongfully convicted people who fail to excel on the pitch. There's no sense of awareness of how problematic this is within the narrative. Hodge sells it by encouraging the viewer to identify with him and for a substantial part of the film, that's enough, but it falls apart a bit towards the end when his contribution becomes a mere detail in a dispute between powerful white men.

There is some good work elsewhere in the film, notably from Xosha Roquemore in the difficult role of Banks' accuser, successfully getting across the way that a teenager might find herself making such a claim and finding it harder and harder to let go of. We see her vulnerability and are asked to understand - without necessarily losing our sense of horror at the situation - rather than condemn. The unusually nuanced and sensitive treatment of this part of the story deserves praise and it's a shame that it's let down by the subsequent courtroom antics. What had the potential to be a really strong film ultimately comes across as a better-than-average-looking TV movie of the week.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2019
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A football player's dreams of playing in the NFL are halted when he is wrongly convicted and sent to prison. Years later, he fights to clear his name within an unjust system.

Director: Tom Shadyac

Writer: Doug Atchison

Starring: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd, Melanie Liburd

Year: 2018

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: US

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