For actor Aldis Hodge, the chance to tell Brian Banks’ story was about more than a movie role — it was a chance to bring awareness to issues that he cares deeply about.
The 32-year-old actor stars in “Brian Banks,” a fictionalized version of the true story of a man who was wrongfully accused of rape at the age of 16 and later convicted. As a high school student in Long Beach, California, Banks was a star athlete who had verbally committed to playing football for the University of Southern California and was on track to have a career in the NFL when his life was dramatically derailed. After a consensual encounter with a female student in a hallway on campus, Banks was accused of rape. He was arrested that same day, and his life shot forward on an unexpected trajectory involving more than five years in prison for rape and another five on probation.
It wasn’t until years later, after Banks had already served his time, that Banks was able to work with the California Innocence Project, a clinical program at California Western School of Law devoted to righting wrongful convictions, to clear his name. His accuser reached out to him via social media and she later admitted, while being unknowingly filmed, to falsely accusing Banks all those years ago. It was a risky move for Banks, as having any contact with his accuser technically constituted a breach of his probation, but it’s a risk that ultimately paid off when his legal team were able to use the tape (which was ultimately inadmissible in court) in their fight to appeal Banks’ case.
Banks’ shocking story is a prime example of what can go wrong when those who are ignorant of the ins and outs of the judicial system are given ineffective counsel, and it’s a story that Hodge felt strongly about being a part of telling.
“Our movie doesn’t really have a personal villain when it comes to people. It has an overall villain when it comes to the judicial system and how it unfairly treats young black and brown boys, given the statistics, given the stereotypes that all point against them,” Hodge told Oxygen.com. “I do think that we can be an asset to that conversation that’s happening right now in terms of criminal justice reform and how people in these positions of power and responsibility do their job, hopefully hold them accountable to actually do a better job, because the system failed Brian.”
“The DA’s office was not in his corner. The legal counsel was not in his corner. They failed him,” he continued. “So if we could be an asset to that conversation, that would be immensely pivotal for me personally because I definitely believe in progressive change for the better.”
After Banks was arrested and facing accusations of kidnapping and rape, he repeatedly told authorities that he and his accuser had not even had sex that day in the stairwell, the New York Daily News reported. Still, his bond was set at more than $1 million, and he was forced to spend a year in a juvenile detention center before having the chance to defend himself. At that point, he learned that prosecutors planned to try him as an adult and, if convicted, have him sentenced to more than 40 years behind bars, according to the outlet.
Banks took a plea deal after his lawyer told him that a jury was sure to find him guilty, “because I was a big, black teenager and the jury would be an all-white jury,” he told the Daily News. But despite his lawyer’s assurances that he’d be given probation if he took the plea deal, Banks instead was sentenced to six years.
It’s a stark contrast to another famous rape case that’s still a topic of contention for many: Brock Turner, the collegiate athlete and convicted rapist who was given only three months behind bars after being caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at a party.
Speaking to Oxygen, Hodge spoke about the extremely different ways in which those two cases were handled, and described it as an example of an unfair system prone to promoting injustice.
“I took this film because of my views as it relates to the justice system,” he said. “I’m well aware of the unfair biases that pervade the culture. How we, [black and brown men], seem to be targeted, used and abused, and one of the things that really got under my skin is, I noticed the famous case, the Brock Turner case.”
“So, you have a privileged university student who’s white, actually caught in the act. There’s no mistaking it — you don’t even need a trial, he was caught in the act,” he went on. “So, he gets a slap on the wrist, three months, because the judge says he doesn’t want to impact his future, but when you come to Brian, who had every bit of evidence pointing towards his innocence but nobody did their due diligence simply because he’s a big, black teen from Long Beach, it just really got under my skin and pissed me off."
Continued Hodge: "I took this job with the hopes that we could add to a progressive conversation in terms of exposing the work that needs to be done and the improvements that do need to be made within the judicial system when it comes to how they treat these cases — specifically, how they treat black and brown people, regarding these cases."
To prepare for the role, Hodge threw himself in head-first, putting on 20 pounds in one month to match Banks' football player physique and becoming inseparable with Banks. The two often worked out together in the gym as Hodge learned more and more about Banks' story from the man himself.
Hodge also wore an ankle monitor for an entire month — without taking it off — to better understand how Banks felt as someone who was ordered to wear one while on probation.
“You sleep with that thing, you shower with it. If you don’t charge it up, it buzzes and it’ll wake you up, so you have to charge it at night while you’re sleeping,” Hodge said. “Walking around [with it on] creates a completely different sort of anxiety because you have a heightened sense of awareness of people looking at you. You think everybody’s looking at your ankle, so you gotta wear big jeans, you gotta cover it with a sock, you gotta do the whole thing.”
“I’m like, ‘Damn, this is just a month — Brian had to do this for five years,’” he continued. “I can’t imagine what that’s like.”
But despite the years of hardship that Banks underwent, his story does have a happy ending. He was exonerated in 2012, and went on to play football with the United Football League and play a number of preseason games with the Atlanta Falcons. While his dreams on the field may have come to an end, Banks went on to use his experiences to advocate for those who have also been wrongfully convicted and inspire others as a motivational speaker. Although he never pursued legal action against his accuser, a court did order her and her family to not only pay back the $1.5 million settlement they were awarded after suing the school district over the rape, but another $1.1 million in fees, according to NBC Los Angeles.
It’s that sense of hope that Hodge hopes viewers can take away from the film, as well as a belief that change, and justice, is possible.
“I just want people to go into this without preconceived notions. Because some people might go to want to find out something and they’ll get a different story,” he said. “Some people might not think this is of interest to them, because, ‘I’ve seen this story before.’”
But Hodge said the movie will surprise people. “Go into this with open minds,” he said. “No biases … Allow yourself to just sit there and just receive whatever this is and whatever it means to you. We’re not trying to push an agenda or push people to think a specific thing. We just want them to receive and understand that there’s more beauty out there in the world that sometimes people work very, very hard to cover up but if you believe in yourself, nobody can cover your shine, nobody can dim your light.”
Actress Sherri Shepherd, who portrays Banks’ mother in the film, shared similar hopes for the film when speaking with Oxygen.com.
“I hope this film shows people that, no matter what you go through, you can still get up and walk and let go and move forward,” she said. “If you meet Brian Banks, he’s the most humble, kind person, and I hope that people see that you can get your smile back in a situation. It’s a movie of triumph as well as hope.”
“Brian Banks” is currently being shown in theaters nationwide.
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