Most of us do dumb things when we’re 16. But most of us don’t lose everything because of it.
Brian Banks did a dumb thing when he was 16. A star linebacker at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Banks was in line for fame and fortune: He’d verbally committed to playing college football for the University of Southern California, one of the NCAA’s most legendary programs. A full-ride scholarship was on the table. He was said to be a “can’t miss” prospect on track to play in the National Football League.
And then one afternoon, he snuck away with a schoolmate named Kennisha for a little canoodle. That evening, he was in cuffs—accused of kidnapping and rape.
It never happened: Kennisha went willingly, Brian says, and he broke it off before things went too far. The DNA evidence backs his side and, eyewitnesses would’ve too—had there been any. But rape is a powerful word, and in court, Brian’s attorney encourages him to enter a plea of no contest anyway: It’s not admitting guilt, she promises, but it is a way to keep him out of prison and out of a messy he-said, she-said trial where the she has the upper hand.
No such luck. The judge looks at the plea agreement, looks at Brian and decides there’s no way a rapist is going to escape jailtime. Six years, he says with the slam of a gavel. And Brian served every day of it. No USC. No NFL. He left the gridiron for a set of iron bars.
More than a decade later, and Brian’s still not free.
True, he’s out of prison, but that means very little. Brian’s a registered sex offender, and still on what seems like a never-ending parole. He wears a monitor around his ankle. He can’t get within a thousand yards of a school or park. No one will hire him. And he can’t play football.
But Brian’s innocent. That’s never changed. And he won’t rest until everyone else knows it.
Brian needs help in his fight to clear his name, so he turns to the California Innocence Project, a non-profit legal firm run by Justin Brooks. He and his team work to free those who’ve been unjustly incarcerated—many of whom spent decades behind bars before their convictions were overturned. Justin and his organization do good work, we’re told, to help innocent people for whom the system failed.
But it’s a hard path to vindication, and Brian’s story brings with it special challenges. Technically, he’s already out of prison, and the system is weighted against him. Justin tells Brian that they’ll need something “extraordinary” to wipe Brian’s record clean.
“It’s extraordinary that I’m still here,” Brian tells him. “That I’m still standing.”
It’s true. Brian’s ability to move past his unjust conviction and move forward is pretty remarkable. But he wouldn’t be standing, Brian tells us, had it not been for the mentorship of Jerome Johnson—a guy who taught a class on self-improvement during Brian’s year-long stint in a juvenile prison.
Brian’s stay in juvie was early on, and he was already well on his way to becoming a bitter, angry man (and you can understand why). But Jerome insisted that prison was, in a way, a “gift,” ironically “freeing” those inside its walls from the distractions that come with freedom. It gives folks like Brian a chance to truly pursue self-improvement and become the people they should be.
“All you can control in life is how you respond to life,” Jerome writes in a book he gives to Brian. He tells him much the same thing verbally. “The pathway to happiness begins and ends in the mind,” Jerome says. “And where your mind leads, your a– will follow.”
Jerome takes on a bit of an almost angelic nature at one point. When Brian’s struggling through a stint in solitary confinement—portrayed as his lowest point emotionally and spiritually—he leans away from a beam of light shining in through his cell. Visions and hallucinations of his past and possible future haunt him, sharing the cell. He weeps by his bedside. “I don’t feel you no more, God,” Brian says.
And then “Jerome”—at least the vision of him—touches Brian’s shoulder, offering the man much-needed words of encouragement. Jerome’s hallucinogenic presence in solitary seems to change Brian’s entire outlook. The sun touches his face finally as he smiles and laughs and cries. Later, Brian tells his girlfriend that he only knew Jerome for that one year in juvie, but that since then, his mentor has been with him “every day.”
Brian was raised in a Christian home. His mother wears a cross around her neck, and she told Brian when he was just a boy that his skills were a gift from God. Brian believed it (we see him praying at his bedside) and, apparently, still does. He says, too, that he had an inkling that something was wrong about the day he got in trouble. “Some say that’s the voice of God,” he says about those inklings.
We see Brian’s and Kennisha’s encounter in the isolated hallway—a regular high-school meeting spot, we’re told, for couples that want to be “alone.” The two kiss and tawdrily touch each other as Kennisha tries to unfasten Brian’s pants. But when Brian hears a teacher pass by, he stops. He tells Kennisha that the moment has passed and leaves, back to class, as a hurt Kennisha watches him go.
We see Kennisha and Brian eye each other and flirt a bit beforehand, just before the two leave for the hallway. Much later, years after he’s released from prison, Brian spends time with another woman (who sometimes wears clingy exercise clothes), and the two hold hands and wrap arms around each other’s shoulders affectionately.
[Spoiler Warning] Brian’s been out of prison for years when Kennisha contacts him through Facebook—asking this man who she accused of rape to be friends. When the two talk on the phone, Kennisha seems to be romantically interested in Brian, telling him how good he looked in his Facebook pictures and asking if he might want to “hang out” with her some time. (She tells him that she also has three kids now, but there’s no mention of a husband or boyfriend.) She later confesses that she accused Brian of rape because they’d been found out by a high school security guard who threatened to call her mother. The 15-year-old Kennisha didn’t want her mom to find out that she’d “been with boys.”
Rape is a violent crime, and obviously we hear quite a bit about it here. (Brian was also accused of kidnapping Kennisha and dragging her down a school hallway against her will.) We learn that another woman was raped by a friend of hers, and the attack left deep emotional scars.
In prison, Brian interrupts an assault and possible murder of a fellow inmate. The victim lies unmoving on the floor, a small pool of blood near his torso, as his attacker pulls a shiv from the body. Later, the same attacker threatens Brian. Brian decides to act first: When he has a chance, he wraps a sock around his fist, walks through the man’s open cell door and punches him in the face. We hear later that Brian broke the guy’s jaw, and Brian spends 60 days in solitary confinement for the attack.
Brian and others are wrestled down by police officers. We see Brian play football, too: The guy was a linebacker, and he engages in physical, football-related action including a few tackles.
Two f-words and about 10 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “d–n,” “h—“ and “p–s.” God’s name is paired with “d–n” twice.
Justin and Brian play air hockey and drink a beer or two at a local bar.
We don’t know why Kennisha lied, but we do learn that she and her mother successfully sued the school for $1.5 million after Brian was sent to prison for rape. Her story about that assault, incidentally, changed “every time” she told it, and she’s caught in a couple of lies years later, too.
Brian Banks is a real person, and this movie is based on a true story. The real Brian Banks did eventually clear his record, and he dressed for the Atlanta Falcons during the 2013 preseason. At 28, he was the oldest rookie to ever play in an NFL game.
Brian Banks, like Brian Banks, isn’t perfect. As a movie, the structure feels both predictable and uneven at times—a jumble of building blocks stacked competently, but not expertly. And when we turn to the movie’s content, some of its problems seem unnecessary, like the two f-words we hear. Others are an inescapable part of the story. Whenever the word rape figures so prominently in a plot, some people will automatically steer clear. And for families considering shelling out money for this flick, it’s a word, and a subject, that deserves careful consideration beforehand and, perhaps, some good discussion afterward.
But for those who can navigate its issues, Brian Banks offers a cinematic rarity: Real-world inspiration.
When justice breaks, it makes us mad. And on some level, it should. But it’s easy to see how that anger could seep deep into our souls, to turn us bitter and hard. We can understand how Brian felt in the immediate aftermath: Why he might want to take this system that failed him so badly and throw it against a wall.
But when something’s broken, smashing it further doesn’t do much. To fix it, it requires something more from us: Patience. Work. Peace. Grace.
“At some point, you got to let all that go,” Brian says. He lets go of his anger, no matter how justified. All the bitterness, no matter how richly earned. “Despair can become a doorway,” Brian’s mentor tells him, and it’s true. To move on requires us to move forward through that doorway, not look back.
And that’s just what Brian Banks did. In spite of all the setbacks, the discouragement, the slammed doors and sideways glances, he moved forward. The world would be a better place if we could all do the same.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.