Originally posted Tuesday, August 6, 2019 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Brian Banks’ story sounds almost like a cliché of a black man railroaded by a justice system stacked against him. Sadly, it’s pure non fiction.
At age 16 in 2002, he was a promising high school linebacker with an early commitment to the University of Southern California on scholarship. Then he was falsely accused of rape and landed in prison following an ill-advised plea deal.
After years in prison and probation, he was able to convince the head of the non-profit California Innocence Project to help clear his name.
Out of the blue in 2011, his accuser reached out to Banks and recanted her rape charge. A judge in 2012 ultimately deemed Banks innocent and he was rewarded $142,000 in compensation in 2015 by the state of California.
And as a feel-good moment, at age 27, he played some pre-season games with the Atlanta Falcons.
That compelling story has been been turned into a dramatic movie “Brian Banks,” which opens in theaters nationwide August 9.
Banks, played in the film by Aldis Hodge (“Leverage,” “Underground”), came to Atlanta recently to promote the movie and spread the word that the justice system has not exactly been fixed since he was enmeshed in it.
“Minors are still being tried as adults,” Banks said. “One of three black men will endure some form of incarceration in their lifetime. [He is citing a dated figure and it is likely lower today.] And 95 to 97 percent end up in a plea bargain situation.”
To him, “there’s a difference between a monster and a 15 year old who makes a mistake. Does that teen deserve 45 years in prison without any attempt at rehabilitation or psychological help? It’s ridiculous.”
Banks, now 34, said being approached to turn his story into a film was flattering but scary at the same time. But he realized his story was worth sharing because it would “spark discussions and help other people around the world. That outweighs having to relive it over and over.”
Most similar criminal cases, he said, “get swept under the rug never to be heard about again. There are so many Brian Banks type stories that don’t end up as pieces of art.”
“We have to hold our judicial system accountable for their mistakes,” he continued. “Every person behind bars wrongfully is another victim.”
He not only loved Hodge’s portrayal of him but he also thought Sherri Shepherd’s first dramatic film role as his mom Leomia was spot on.
“They look alike,” he said. “When I first met her, I expected her to be Sherri Shepherd, all joking and lively. But she was in character. She sounded like my mom, moved like my mom, was sad like my mom.”
Shepherd, best known for her time on “The View,” said she fought hard for the role because she connected so much with Banks’ mom, who struggled quietly as her son suffered in prison. She had to bring down her own ebullient essence to match Leomia’s low-key energy.
“She questioned her faith,” Shepherd said. “She turned inwards. But she was still there for Brian. She knew she had to be strong for her son. She was a victim, too. She really tried to keep her kids off the streets and out of trouble.”
Has Banks reached a point of forgiveness toward the false accuser Wanetta Gibson?
“I have decided to remove myself from that situation” he said. “I don’t know if anybody deserves that much power over my life. I focus on today and what I can do now. Deciding to forgive doesn’t change what happened in your life.”
Banks is a life coach working with the wrongfully convicted. He co-hosted an Oxygen show “Final Appeal” in 2018 looking at cases of people falsely accused of crimes and advises for the California Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations.
Having been in prison, he said it has changed the way he looks at the world and “sometimes I prefer to just be by myself. I’m very much used to being in one space for a long period of time. I don’t need to be in a big group of people.”
He now has a Mexican girlfriend and a six-month-old son.
“I’m more of a family man now,” he said. “That’s where I find my joy.” He said he will have to prepare his son for the world we live in. “I can’t say this is a world I want to grow up in,” he said. “This is the world I’m going to have to prepare him to live in.”
Shepherd said she is truly inspired by Banks.
“I admire how he is able to keep moving forward despite the odds,” she said. “I’ve learned from him to do a better job being present in my son’s life. I text Brian in the mornings and ask him, “How do I raise my son?’”
As for his brief moment in the sun with the Falcons, Banks has nothing but warm memories - even if he was cut before the start of the 2013-14 season.
“It was a dream come true, a dream restored,” he said. “Just the feeling of camaraderie, to be back in that locker room with the fellas. I had people believe in my talent and it was amazing to see my mom in the stands cheering me on.”
Though he remains a California resident, “Atlanta is like a second home to me,” he added. “I love the history of this city and the opportunities here.”
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