In the era of #MeToo, in which women are finally being given a voice against sexual predators, a movie about a false rape accusation feels like a tough sell. Brian Banks is an earnestly told true story of criminal injustice focusing on Banks (a terrific Aldis Hodge in a bust-out performance), a junior at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, who’s headed to USC on a scholarship and a future NFL career as a linebacker. That future evaporates when Banks is wrongly accused of sexual assault by fellow student Kinnesha Rice (Xosha Roquemore). Banks is hustled to take a plea deal, which lands him in prison for six years before he’s paroled into society as a registered sex offender, forced to wear a monitoring device, and faces job prospects that don’t include football or working anywhere near a school. It also reveals the personal toll of a false conviction: How does a guy like Banks get a date when he has to inform anyone he’s interested in that he’s a sex offender? When he gives his history to Karina (Melanie Liburd), a personal trainer he likes, he learns she has been a victim of sexual assault.
An oft-repeated criticism of the film is that this isn’t the right time to tell the story. But that’s bogus reasoning — the time is always right to address inequity, especially when the unjust incarceration of black men remains a national disgrace. For Banks and his loyal single mom Leomia (Sherri Shepherd), hope comes in the form of the California Innocence Project, which may be able to give Banks a chance to overturn his verdict. But attorney Justin Brooks (a very fine Greg Kinnear) needs new evidence to reopen the case. Is it enough that his accuser contacts Banks on Facebook hinting at a recantation? That’s the catalyst that kicks the case and the movie into high gear.
Or at least it should — that it doesn’t quite get there is a deep frustration. The Banks case needed a movie that stings with urgency and purpose to counteract the baggage of its premise. Instead, it gets a pedestrian, by-the-numbers treatment that diminishes an impact that should feel as timely now as it was when it happened in 2002. The stacked-deck script by Doug Atchison (Akeelah and the Bee) argues so relentlessly in Banks’ favor that it reduces his depth as a human. Director Tom Shadyac — best known for mainstream comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Bruce Almighty and Patch Adams — deserves praise for returning to films to direct a narrative feature of genuine gravity a decade after bicycle accident sidelined him. Yet, Brian Banks is washed in the worst kind of TV formula sermonizing, with inspiring speeches dropped in at regular intervals and Morgan Freeman playing the personification of uplift in an uncredited role as Banks’s prison mentor. When we most want the movie to show, it tells.
The proceedings are raised when Hodge is onscreen, using every nuanced look and gesture to jump the hurdles of a banal script and reveal the pain tearing up Banks. Having made a mark in films like Straight Outta Compton and Hidden Figures, and on TV in City on a Hill, Hodge hits new heights of commitment. (Admittedly, at 32 he’s hampered by having to play those flashback scenes of Banks as a teen.) Despite the faults of the film, the vindicated Banks could not have found a better actor to make his case.