Is it still disparaging to remark that a major motion picture feels like a "made-for-TV movie?" Are "made-for-TV movies still even made? Brian Banks, the uplifting new drama starring Aldis Hodge as the eponymous football player who spent six years in prison for a rape he did not commit, feels like one. It's not so much the production design or even the actors themselves, (both of which are solid). It's something about the pacing of the script, the tenor and unambiguousness of the line delivery, the way that everything feels like a dramatization of a true story.
There is an F-bomb dropped midway through the film – "Fuck the system," Banks tells his lawyer during an explanation of ostensibly insurmountable legal hurdles – and it detonates with more force than usual because until that point, the whole thing had felt like something you might show a middle school social studies class. (For the record: This one's still worth showing to young people.) The film opens at area theaters, not on ABC or FOX, this Friday.
Brian Banks is trying to get back into football at the start, playing linebacker for Long Beach Community College, when his parole officer tells him that a new California law will require him to wear an ankle bracelet 24/7. His dreams of playing in the NFL are dashed all over again. It'll be another year before his parole is up and he can try to make another team. "No one starts playing football at 27," he dejectedly tells his mother (Sherri Shepherd.)
Banks must become his own advocate. He attempts to overturn his conviction on his own, expanding on the knowledge of the legal system he acquired while locked up. He eventually enlists the sympathy – and more importantly, the legal resources — of the California Innocence Project, led by Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), and a team of hungry young lawyers. The CIP usually only takes on cases of prisoners who are still in jail, Brooks tells Banks; and even then, only when there's slam-dunk evidence to overturn a conviction. But Brooks reluctantly agrees to let some of his staff help Brian out. The case seems egregious. None of the facts in the accuser's story were substantiated by police or prosecutors. And Banks was faced with a pressure-cooker plea deal in which he thought he'd only get probation. Instead, he got a harsh judge and six years in prison.
The film is a painful reminder that our legal system prioritizes expediency over truth. And, as the CIP well understood, sometimes it takes an extraordinary, high-profile defendant to wake people up to a system's injustice.
The strongest aspect of Brian Banks is its portrayal of the various hardships ex-felons experience as they reintegrate into society. Seeking employment is naturally a nightmare – a montage shows Banks' many rejections – but his personal life is scattered with land mines too. In one memorable scene, Banks is getting coffee with a woman who's clearly attracted to him. The date is going well until she asks why he stopped playing football. Banks begins a speech he's clearly delivered many times before. He was convicted as a teenager of something he didn't do, he says. It was a rape conviction. The girl lied. As Banks talks, the audio is muffled and the camera focuses on the face of his date. Her smile disappears. Her eyes glaze over. She immediately makes some excuse – she has to get back to work, she says. And Banks can only smile politely and say, "Of course. It's no big deal." But you can see the pain and the anger in his eyes.