Tom Shadyac is the director of some of the most iconic comedy films in pop culture history. Movies such as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “Liar Liar,” and “Bruce Almighty” are just some of the notable comedies on Shadyac’s impressive resume. However, it’s his 2010 documentary, “I Am,” that feels a bit closer to what he did with his latest film, “Brian Banks.” In “I Am,” Shadyac sets out on a personal mission to discover what’s wrong with the world and how it can be improved.
In a discussion, Shadyac tells The Burn-In’s Sari Cohen that the outcome of this film had more to do with Brian Banks than anything else. “I didn’t put it into the film, he put it into me,” the director explained. “He reminded me of how important it is to be compassionate in difficult circumstances; to be kind even to yourself and then to reflect that to others.”
The Only Thing you can Control in Life is how you Respond to Life
At 16 years old, Brian Banks was falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He lost a USC football scholarship and a future of playing in the NFL. In 2002, he was wrongly convicted for raping his classmate, Wanetta Gibson, and spent five years in prison. As a teenager, he was faced with an impossible decision: take a plea deal, or risk spending 41 years-to-life in prison. With only moments to decide, he opted for the plea.
The movie hones in on events from Banks’ perspective. We see what it was like during his time in prison, what motivated him to persevere, and the events that unfolded once he was released. After surviving prison, Banks’ career as an NFL player was off the table. At 25 years old, he returned to the football field as a linebacker at Long Beach City College. However, after being registered as a sex offender and forced to wear an electronic ankle monitor, he was prohibited from stepping foot on the college campus.
It was after seeing a news story on television about a lawyer named Justin Brooks (played in the film by Greg Kinnear) that Banks decided he was going to take matters into his own hands.
Brooks is the co-founder of the California Innocence Project (CIP). The CIP has been around since 1999, working to free people who have been wrongfully convicted. It has also helped implement change within the criminal justice system. The non-profit receives over 2,000 claims each year from people who stand by their innocence. CIP’s mission is to get wrongful verdicts overturned.
The Kindness of Strangers
Banks’ case was not an ordinary appeal. He was already out of prison by the time he contacted the CIP. Although he already served his time, the lengthy probation period was destroying any chance Banks had at regaining any normalcy of life. His dreams of playing football were shattered. The letter that he wrote to Brooks, as read in the film, lays out an emotional plea from a man fighting to save himself.
“[It wasn’t] the actual words, but definitely that was my plea,” Banks tells The Burn-In. “That I don’t have everything needed, but I can tell you that I need your help. They’re such an amazing organization,” Banks continued. “They do this work pro bono. Students who are aspiring attorneys, they jump on board to do their clinical hours, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves; doing the noble work that so many know nothing about or choose not to know about. I have so much love and respect for what they do. If it wasn’t for them, all of my hard work and all of my effort at trying to prove my innocence would’ve not gotten there if it wasn’t for them carrying me across the finish line.”
In the movie, Banks is played by Aldis Hodge. Joining Hodge and Kinnear is Sherri Shepherd (Leomia) and Melanie Liburd (Karina). Shepherd stars as Banks’ devoted mother and Liburd plays his eventual love interest, Karina. Xosha Roquemore plays Kinnesha Rice, Banks’ renamed accuser in the film. After suing the Long Beach Unified School District, she initially walked away with a settlement of 1.5 million dollars. In the end, she recanted her story. Roughly a decade after going to prison, on May 24, 2012, a judge from the Los Angeles Superior Court reversed Banks’ conviction and truly set him free.
The Path to Happiness Begins and Ends with the Mind
Telling a true story, especially that of Brain Banks’, comes with a responsibility to tell it right. As several themes rippled throughout the film, each of the actors had their own takeaways from the experience.
Some moments stood out more than others.
“The moment where Brian acquires this evidence that could actually clear his name, takes it to the CIP and presents it, then he realizes that it’s inadmissible in court,” Hodge revealed was his key moment. “It took us a few shots to figure out how to navigate that scene. It’s a very important, very pivotal scene, but it’s such a defining moment between Brian and Justin. It’s very telling of their relationship,” Hodge went on to explain.
“With Justin, these people that he works with are usually locked up, and they’re getting them out of prison,” Kinnear added. “Brian was already out of prison, so he’s a little bit of a different case for him. Just the difficulty of having to face a really nice guy and wanting to help him, but he’s one of a million. Capturing that in this movie and ultimately letting Brian win them over in the CIP. Those scenes, I think Tom really gets a nice arc of that. You really understand the difficult situation everybody was in, in this, and how they ultimately got to the other end.”
“Brian Banks” is in theaters now.