Perhaps the worst thing a film can be, even more so than the binary of good or bad, is forgettable. That is the best way to reflect upon “Brian Banks,” the latest film in the canon of dramas that highlight the criminalization and mass incarceration of black people in the United States.
Director Tom Shadyac (“The Nutty Professor”) flatly tells the true story of the titular football star (Aldis Hodge, “City on a Hill”) whose promising career came to a screeching halt when he was wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a young woman in 2002 (when he was 17 years old) and spent six years in prison. Though we see brief flashbacks of Brian in jail feeling defeated and struggling to navigate the system inside, much of the film is spent after his incarceration, as he tries in vain to find work despite having a criminal record while on a strict custody parole and fighting to clear his name.
It’s odd to describe a film like this as not dramatic enough, but there is an awkward lack of urgency, which isn’t helped by a lifeless score by John Debney (“The Beach Bum”) lifeless score that further cloaks it. Every moment in Doug Atchison’s (“Akeelah and the Bee”) screenplay seems to be told in bullet points with very little exposition. We see Brian as a young athlete with all his gear on the field. Then we see him help fellow student Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore, “I’m Dying Up Here”) across campus; they start making out until he pulls away because he doesn’t want to get caught. The next thing we know, she is accusing him of rape.
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There is a hackneyed trial scene where Brian is given horrendous advice by his lawyer, agrees to plead guilty, and is immediately sentenced as his mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd) weeps in the background. It’s all a bit stale. But then we flash forward to present day when Brian struggles to reacclimate himself into a world that has all but turned its back on him. Not only can’t he find a job, but he also can’t date, because his criminal record stigmatizes him. All he has is one final hope: that Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) of the California Innocence Project can help clear his name.
This is where “Brian Banks” gets awkward, narrative-wise. On one hand, there is this made-for-TV (and not very compelling TV) back-and-forth drama with Brian trying to convince Justin that his case is worth investigating and re-trying, catalyzed by Hodge’s tear-filled scene of Brian pleading with Justin at his office. Then there is the re-introduction of Kennisha (for some reason both Roquemore and Hodge play the teenage and adult versions of their characters, which isn’t always convincing) who tries to befriend Brian in the present day, only to get cornered into admitting that she lied about her accusation.
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Kennisha is inexplicably portrayed as a stereotypical young black mom with several kids and no common sense. Her character very well could be like this in real life, but considering that the film all but sanctifies Brian, seeing her portrayed like a dim-witted villain seems ill-advised. That’s where the lack of exposition really hampers the film.
Another problem area comes — surprise, surprise — with the introduction of another black female character. Karina (Melanie Liburd, “This is Us”) is Brian’s love interest who is, at first, nervous when he tells her about his record. But then she softens as she (wait for it) confides to him about being sexually assaulted in college. That moment could have really been broken down into two separate parts to process both her trauma and his shock and empathy. Instead, it seems rushed and completely unfulfilled.
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Karina goes on to be in his corner throughout his new courtroom battle, once Justin finally decides to take his case, but her emotion for him feels unearned. It’s just not believable, at least not in the way that it unfolds in the film. The fact that there are very few time stamps (other than the ones that distinguish the teenage and adult years) also doesn’t help matters.
If you’re already familiar with Brian’s story, then you know that he is ultimately exonerated. But “Brian Banks” is filled with too many thinly scripted moments to truly bask in this glory. Not only are the women in the film completely underwritten (with Kennisha’s depiction particularly woeful), but Shadyac and Atchison also don’t really do any favors for their eponymous hero either. Brian is reduced to a prototypical spokesman for the Black Lives Matter movement and not the complex yet innocent individual that he is. There is too much energy spent on consecrating him while marginalizing the women who are intertwined in his story; his innocence shouldn’t be portrayed as their sacrifice.
Whatever potential “Brian Banks” had to be, at the very least, a remarkable film for criminal justice reform feels dissipated.