Who Really Set Brian Banks Free

Movie/book review by Glenda Faye Mathes

Brian Banks; Rated PG-13
Production companies: ShivHans Pictures, Gidden Media; Distributors: Bleecker Street, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, Stage 6 Films; Director: Tom Shadyac; Writer: Doug Atchison

What Set Me Free: A True Story of Wrongful Conviction, a Dream Deferred, and a Man Redeemed by Brian Banks with Mark Dagostina; published by Atria Books, New York, 320 pages; © 2019.

Brian Banks is a fantastic movie, but I’m prejudiced. Brian is an acquaintance and fellow exoneree of Uriah Courtney, with whom I collaborated on the book Exoneree about his wrongful conviction. Both Brian and Uriah were exonerated through the efforts of the California Innocence Project. How remarkable to sit in a movie theater and watch actors portray people I’ve met, and what a surprise to see Uriah’s picture as one of the exonerees depicted during the credits!

Greg Kinnear skillfully captures the personality of Justin Brooks, although he doesn’t exude quite as powerful a presence as Justin does. Tiffany Dupont was as beautiful as Alissa Bjerkhoel, but she lacked Alissa’s distinctive smile and sparkling eyes. Although Tiffany conveyed Alissa’s compassion, the script didn’t give her much opportunity to display Alissa’s humor or professionalism.

The movie takes place over a two-year period of Brian’s post-prison life, but it effectively depicts earlier incidents through seamless flashbacks and reflections. Aldis Hodge accomplishes the remarkable feat of believably portraying Brian Banks over a decade, from a confused juvenile through a tormented inmate to a frustrated parolee who struggles to find work and forge relationships.

Brian’s most abiding relationship is with his mother, movingly played by Sherri Shepherd. Her warm face and calm voice radiate affection and wisdom. In a voiceover, Brian says she taught him “faith” and that his talent was “God-given.”

The film’s portrayal of Christian faith, however, is conveyed primarily through subtle images: Brian praying by his bed as a boy, his mom wearing a cross necklace and handling it at crucial moments, a beam of light coming into Brian’s cell and rescuing him from mental torment.

More obvious concepts are expressed through instructor Jerome Johnson, superbly played by Morgan Freeman, who teaches Brian the power of restructuring his thinking. The aphorisms Freeman delivers in his sonorous voice resonate with Christians, including: All you can control in life is how you respond to life.

Although releasing such a story in the wake of the burgeoning “Me Too” movement may seem like poor timing, the movie acknowledges the injustice existing on both ends of the spectrum. It uses the character of Karina, played admirably by Melanie Liburd, to show the pain of not being believed. When she shares her experience, Brian responds appropriately and sympathetically. The film also hints at the complexity of sexual crimes by showing how a young girl could have had the word “rape” suggested to her, and how the situation then could have mushroomed beyond her control.

The Brian Banks movie powerfully shows the reality of an unjust process and the trauma of incarceration. That crucial message overrides potential objections and the occasional use of foul language.

I left the theater feeling pleased about the amount of Christianity portrayed in a big-screen movie, but wondering what kind of faith Brian really had. Was it a form of positive thinking or mysticism? Or was it biblical Christianity? So I ordered and read Brian’s book: What Set Me Free: A True Story of Wrongful Conviction, a Dream Deferred, and a Man Redeemed.

Reading the book showed that, like most movies, Brian Banks condenses action, consolidates characters, and creates dialogue. It takes liberties with a few facts, but the movie gets Brian’s story right and portrays it truthfully.

My reading even confirmed that Aldis Hodge played my favorite scene to perfection. In the movie, when Brian receives a Facebook friend request from his accuser, he slams shut his laptop and circles it warily, eyeing it as if it contains a demon. In the book, Brian relates how he slammed the laptop shut and pushed it away, feeling as if he’d “just seen the devil itself.” The dialogue is unbelievable: She wants to let bygones be bygones. She’s seen his picture and thinks he’s looking good. She wants to hang out with him. Unbelievable, but true.

While the movie shows the truth, it doesn’t show the whole truth. Yes, sunlight pierces Brian’s cell and he recalls his instructor’s words, which calm his mental torment. But his epiphany goes beyond that. When he’s able to be still and calm his soul, he hears God communicate, “I’m here.” Brian realizes: “God was with me. He’s always been with me.”

Brian’s instructor gave him many books that helped him learn to control his raging emotions by fostering more positive thoughts. But it was God who set Brian free from his physical and mental prison, who gave him the opportunity to finally play (briefly) for the NFL, and who redeemed his eternal soul.

While Brian offers credit where it is due, he doesn’t relate much about studying the Bible or how it helps guide his living. Uriah Courtney’s story, Exoneree, is much stronger in this regard.

My familiarity with the CIP attorneys and the stories of exonerees made me favorably predisposed toward Brian’s story, but everyone needs to become more aware about the reality of wrongful conviction. As the movie stresses, any justice system is only as good as the people within it and their ability to view individuals as persons to be treated with dignity and compassion.

See the Brian Banks movie. Read his story in What Set Me Free. And read Exoneree for a clear testimony about the ongoing power of God’s word and Spirit—for both victims and those with opportunities to work small, accumulative changes.

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