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The Rage of Innocence

Brian Banks tells a cruel and true story with too little righteous anger.

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SHIVHANS PICTURES
  • Shivhans Pictures
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The railroading of African-American males by the U.S. legal system. The injustices of overcrowded courts, overworked defense attorneys and overused plea-bargaining.The legal hoops that must be jumped through, and Catch-22s that must be untangled—but often cannot be—in the attempts to undo the cruelty of wrongfulimprisonment. There's a lot here to make the thinking, compassionate citizen furious. But despite a passionate and engaging central performance by the charming andcharismatic Aldis Hodge, Brian Banks never quite manages to be the gripping drama it wants to be ... and needs to be.

Told in a sadly familiar way, this sadly familiar tale gets a little lost in melodrama and indulging the capital-I Inspirational. Getting angry might have served it better,for the true story it tells is infuriating. In 2002, hugely promising California high-school football player Brian Banks (Hodge) was accused of a crime he did not commit—there's no question about this—and his subsequent six-year prison sentence derailed the NFL career he was barreling toward. It almost goes withoutsaying that Banks is African-American.

This docudrama picks up his story after Banks, now in his 20s, has been released from prison but on a five-year parole, and just as he's subjected to the new indignity of wearingan ankle monitor. Banks had been in touch with the California Innocence Project (CIP) before, while incarcerated, but theorganization—which works to help free those wrongly imprisoned— turned him down. Now, he tries again to secure their help to hopefully clear his name and geton with his life: his felony record means he can't find even a menial job, and playing football is out of the question.

Director Tom Shadyac, best known for outrageous comedy (Bruce Almighty) and outrageous schmaltz (Patch Adams), mostly tempers his instincts for the over-the-top; there's only a teensy bit of awkward on-the-nose speechifying. But the script, by Doug Atchison (Akeelah and the Bee), overreaches in itssearch for spiritual succor and redemption. Banks' desire to let go of animosity over the unfairness he has suffered is perfectly understandable. And there's certainly something appealing in the pragmatic philosophy that he acquires in prison from a teacher played by anuncredited Morgan Freeman about finding resilience in adversity, learning how to let go of resentment and discovering the best way to grow from a scared boyinto a thoughtful, sensitive man.

It might have been a mistake on Shadyac's part, however, to have the 30-something Hodge play the 16-year-old Banks in flashbacks to the incident which landed him in prison. One big issue with the U.S. justice system is in how it treats African-American children as grown-ups ... and, indeed, the teen Banks wascharged as an adult even though he was a minor. Casting a younger actor would have underscored that Banks was most definitely still a child in a waythat having the obviously adult Hodge enacting those scenes undercuts.

Of course, it's good for Brian's own personal well-being to not hold onto negativity, even as he never gives up his battle to redeem himself in the eyes of the law. ButBrian Banks could have used a different kind of outrage: a furious, bitter kind could have, and should have, been brought to bear by the film on Banks'behalf. Greg Kinnear as the head of the CIP is as terrific, as he always is, but even he brings only resigned disillusionment with the criminal-justice system.

America is long past time for a reckoning with its own racism and corruption, and the urgent necessity of the film's message—that America's criminal justice needsimmediate and sweeping reform—ends up nowhere near incensed enough. It unfortunately casts Banks' own gentle toughness as perhaps too accommodating ofinjustice, too willing to forgive. And while it might not be the job of any given individual to push back against even the wrongs done to him—though the movie makes itclear that its subject, in real life, now works with the CIP—it should absolutely be the job of a story like this to take up that mantle.

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