Brian Banks is a new sports biopic from director Tom Shadyac, marking a long return for the director since he released the documentary I Am back in 2010. The story revolves around Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge), a high school football star who is wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to five years in prison, as well as another five years on probation. Sometime into his probation, Banks works with defense attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) of the California Innocence Project (C.I.P.) to clear his name so that he can play football again. Now I wouldn’t consider myself a huge football fan but, with football season right around the corner, I still hoped for that Brian Banks would be a good movie. That’s mostly what I got with this inspiring, if not decent, sports biopic.
My least favorite aspect of this film is probably the direction. It’s not bad for someone like Shadyac after an eight year gap, but it’s nothing special either. Shadyac even goes down that cliché road of setting several filmic montages to modern hip-hop music. There are still brief moments where his filmmaking style shines, most notably during a flashback where Brian is in solitary confinement. While I won’t spoil the scene’s details, it easily ranks amongst the film’s best-directed moments. Conversely, one scene that I am still unsure about is shot up close with low light and handheld camera shooting. This direction will likely make more sense in context and, given the character being filmed in that shot, I’d have to see the movie again just to confirm those feelings.
Thankfully, the performances in Brian Banks are much better. Aldis Hodge is terrific in the titular role of a man who’s been through so much, yet remains determined to exonerate himself and pursue his dreams in the NFL. One particular scene where Hodge delivers a powerful monologue about how he managed to survive prison captivated me to the point that I could easily see him being considered for an Oscar. Greg Kinnear is also great as the defense attorney who wants to help Banks fight the broken system that unfairly incarcerated him, even though Brooks is unsure how to fight it. I also like Brooks’ explanation of why he started the C.I.P., as it truly humanizes the character rather than tip him over into white savior territory.
Everyone else delivers a stellar performance, particularly Sherri Shepherd as Brian’s mother Leomia. She’s not in the movie for too long but one emotional third act scene more than justifies her presence as a character. Banks also has a love interest named Karina (Melanie Liburd) with a fascinating history of her own. Whether or not she’s a real person, Karina’s background allows the character to be more than a typical love interest while fitting into the movie’s themes of redemption and rising above prejudices. Bank’s accuser Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore) also had plenty of screen time in the film but without saying too much, I still wish we could have seen more of her character. I also would have also liked to seen more focus given to Kennisha’s mother (Monique Grant), who remains adamant to the claim that Banks raped her daughter.
Brian Banks’ second-best aspect is the story itself, being a modern tale of determination and never giving up in the face of defeat. Moviegoers will want to root for Banks when he’s at his lowest point and see him triumph over the corrupt system preventing his unjust incarceration. The real-life Brian Banks and Justin Brooks both served as producers on the film and understandably wanted to tell a faithful interpretation of Banks’s story, something I believe was mostly successful. People familiar with Banks’s real-life history might know what outcome to expect and certain scenes like Banks opening up about how he endured his prison sentence demand emotional investment, but the narrative remains inspiring nonetheless, especially in today’s divisive sociopolitical climate.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
Brian Banks isn’t an amazing film, but it still tells a solid story worth viewing in theaters. Excellent performances and an uplifting narrative make up for the okay direction of an otherwise cliched sports biopic. Hopefully, this film gets a wide enough theatrical release so that everyone has a chance to see it for themselves.