Actors, attorneys and exonorees walk the red carpet at screening of ‘Brian Banks’ movie in Balboa Park
The movie depicts the former high school football standout’s struggle to clear his name after he was wrongfully convicted of rape in 2012.
There’s a scene early in the new “Brian Banks” movie in which two characters are seated at a bar, talking about a criminal justice system they both agree is broken.
One of those characters is Banks — played by actor Aldis Hodge — whose dreams of a pro-football career were hobbled when he spent five years in prison and five on parole for a crime he didn’t commit. The other is Justin Brooks, director and co-founder of the San Diego-based California Innocence Project, portrayed by Greg Kinnear.
In the scene, Banks tries to persuade Brooks and his team of lawyers to work to exonerate him. Brooks explains the obstacles stacked against them — Banks took a plea; his case didn’t go to trial; he’d need new evidence to reopen it.
Sure, Banks may be innocent, but the realities of the justice system in California might be something he just has to accept.
“F--- the system,” Banks says.
It’s a moment of righteous anger in the movie about the real-life Banks, who was all-smiles at a screening Saturday night at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Also at the event, complete with red carpet, were Brooks, Kinnear and others instrumental to getting the movie made, including screenplay writer Doug Atchison and director Tom Shadyac.
The film opens nationwide in theaters on Friday.
“I think it’s important and it’s extremely critical that we continue to share stories like mine... ,” said Banks, now 34. “These are stories of injustice within a flawed system, and this system has to be held accountable for these experiences that people are going through.
“I think we can all agree that regardless of your race, your religion, your ethnic background, nobody deserves to go to prison for something that they didn’t do. No one deserves to be in a cage for a crime they did not commit.”
Banks, a football standout, was 16 in 2002 when a classmate accused him of raping her in a stairwell at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. He was 17 when, on the advice of his then-lawyer, he pleaded no contest to a rape charge, hoping to avoid a possible conviction that could have sent him to prison for 41 years to life.
He had been told he would likely get probation. Instead, he was sentenced to a six-year prison term.
Almost a decade later, his accuser Wanetta Gibson sent him a friend request on Facebook and eventually was caught on tape admitting that Banks did not rape her. With help from Brooks and the Innocence Project, evidence in the case was reviewed and a Los Angeles County judge reversed the conviction in May 2012.
Before he was accused of rape, Banks was being courted by several colleges to join their football programs, and was recruited by Coach Pete Carroll at USC. After Banks was exonerated, Carroll — now head coach of the Seattle Seahawks — gave him a tryout as did a few other NFL teams.
In 2013, Banks signed a contract with the Atlanta Falcons. He played in the preseason but was cut before the regular season.
Shortly before that, Banks and Brooks started taking meetings in Hollywood. Given all the media coverage at the time, Brooks knew there was interest in turning Banks’ story into a feature film, but they both hoped to find “the right people” who would make a “justice movie not a football movie.”
“For me, the biggest problem has been that our system has become a system of pleas,” Brooks said recently, noting that the overwhelming majority of criminal cases end in a plea bargain, rather than going to trial. “You know the system has become crazy when innocent people are pleading out.”
Brooks, who’s been a lawyer for 30 years, said seeing this movie get made has been a “surreal” experience. The filmmakers recreated Brooks’ San Diego office in Memphis, and even bought a 1995 Jeep Cherokee for his on-screen doppelganger to drive.
Kinnear, known for his work in movies including “As Good As It Gets,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” sat in on some of Brooks’ classes at California Western School of Law and was able to mimic some of the attorney’s nuances and mannerisms, at least according to Brooks’ wife.
And Brooks was there during the filming of that aforementioned bar scene, in a non-speaking role as the bartender, watching as the actors recreated a conversation he’d had with Banks years ago.
“It’s been an out-of-body experience,” he said.
Many people involved in the real-life Brian Banks story said that they hope the movie version brings heightened awareness to problems in the justice system and how they could affect anyone — not just a black teenage football star from Long Beach.
Banks, now father to a 6-month-old son O'rion, works as an advocate for people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes and sits of the advisory boards of the California Innocence Project and The National Registry of Exonerations. Several other people who have been exonerated with help from the Innocence Project, attended the Saturday night screening.
“I’m thankful that I have a movie about my story, that people get to learn my story,” Banks said on the red carpet. “But way beyond that, the fact that we are going to tell the stories of others, that this movie will represent others — that’s where my heart is smiling.
“I know what it felt like to be in that cage,” he continued. “And so, to turn around and help those who can’t help themselves, it means more to me than anything else.”
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