The Devastation Of Delayed Justice And The Necessary Timing Of 'Brian Banks'
Anger is nothing but clouded judgment, and Aldis Hodge wants me to be clear on that. It’s a pleasant June afternoon and before the actor departs from the East Coast for his next film project, we’re chatting over the phone about the particulars of the infamous Brock Turner case. In 2015, the former Stanford University student, then 19, was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious 22-year-old woman behind a campus dumpster after a frat party. At the time of sentencing for his deplorable crime, his father wrote a letter to the judge presiding over the case, begging for a more lenient sentence than the prosecutor’s requested six years because “that is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
To say Hodge felt certain things when the judge okayed a gentler sentencing—Turner was given six months in Santa Clara County Jail but was released after three—would be an understatement. Like many with sense and empathy considered it, the meager “consequence” for his actions was a spit in the face.
“The judicial system failed that woman,” Hodge says sternly. “When [Turner] gets let off with a slap on the wrist for three months, then I have to question how does the judicial system look at the value of women. They're saying, ‘his life will be severely impacted if he's in jail.’ I'm sorry, it's supposed to be. Why? Because this young woman's life is now severely impacted forever. She can't escape that. Where is the real justice?” The passion manifesting in the inflections of his voice, however, is steeped in disappointment, not quite anger. “I speak with full clarity and understanding of the subject matter but I'm still quite disappointed because we have been let down as a society.”
It wasn’t lost on Hodge how similar this judicial fumble was to the case of former Atlanta Falcons player Brian Banks, whose infuriating story is the basis of the Bleecker Street film bearing his name. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why he auditioned for the lead role in the first place. Those familiar with Banks’ tale will know that in 2002, the then-17 high schooler and NFL prospect was wrongfully convicted of rape following a consensual sexual encounter on campus with classmate Wanetta Gibson. Although he maintained his innocence, she accused him of raping and kidnapping her, sued Long Beach Unified School District for lax security and an unsafe school environment, and eventually received a settlement of $15 million.
After being given 10 minutes to pick fighting the charges and risking 41 years-to-life in prison, or taking a plea deal and spending just over five years, he chose the latter with a no contest plea. Banks was sentenced to six years and a lifetime on the sex offender list, serving five and a year on probation (complete with an ankle monitor). With the eventual help of the California Innocence Project (who he had to convince to advocate on his behalf) he was exonerated a decade later on May 24, 2012 when Gibson recanted her story and admitted to fabricating the rape.
Brian Banks finds Hodge (Underground, City on a Hill, What Men Want) retracing the steps of the athlete’s redemption story from solitary confinement breakdowns to his rocky reentry to society on parole to the day his accuser, whose lie temporarily shattered his future, reached out to him on Facebook to “move past” that time.
Tucking away the pain of his ordeal took time, but in spending time with Banks, now 34, Aldis has developed a deep sense of awe and respect for Banks’ resilience and healing process. During the making of this film, in which Banks served as an executive producer, tough days were far from absent. Hodge can recall times when the flood of emotions were too strong to be kept behind stoic facades and focused eyes.
“There's a scene where I'm presenting my evidence to the C.I.P., showing them that this woman lied and they’re saying that I cannot present that in court. It's inadmissible,” he says, referencing Banks’ almost moment of freedom. After agreeing to talk to him in person about the incident, Banks and a neutral party secretly recorded her recantation. Unfortunately, because she did not agree up front to record the plain-as-day confession, her new words could not be used to free him. One could imagine the crushing feeling of defeat. “We talked about that before I shot the scene and were sitting there, two grown swole dudes in a hallway sitting on some stairs crying, going through the emotions.”
Here, Aldis Hodge talks about the feeling of retelling of such a heavy yet hopeful story, why it’s unfair to measure Brian Banks against the #MeToo movement, and why the time to take America’s flawed justice system to task—no matter the victim’s demographic—is right now.
VIBE: How much did you know about Brian's story before this project and did you find this project on you own or did someone seek you out?
Aldis Hodge: I was familiar with it because of the juxtaposition of the case of Brock Turner and you see how it was handled versus how Brian's case was handled. I was quite frustrated with that, so when the story came up, I said, wow, this is really a grand opportunity to say something effective. Hopefully share a little light on the disparity when it comes to how we're treated in the judicial system versus how folk who don't look like us are treated.
What was that knee-jerk reaction when you heard the Brock Turner case?
My personal take on that, first of all I was, "Who's judging the judge?" The judge failed us as a society when it came to not necessarily making an example out of this young man, but just doing what was supposed to be done right. Justice wasn't served. I was pissed off. I'm not even going to lie, I was pissed off. In life there are so many grey areas, but when it comes to cases like this, there's black and white.
We can point back to Brian's case where they had a bunch of evidence pointing towards his innocence, where he should've gotten the benefit of the doubt. He should've gotten a second chance. The judicial system failed him and they didn't give him a chance at all because of who he was, what he looked like, where he came from. That's how we as black culture in this country are continually treated by the government, by the justice system. That needs to change, which is another part of why I did this film. I believe it has something more to say than just “it's a great story about hope.” It's really a wonderful, beautiful story that, to me, inspires faith and belief in oneself, because what Brian did for himself is insane. He went into prison, came out smarter and far more educated than when he went in. He manages to achieve exonerating and clearing his name, then goes on to achieve the ultimate dream—being in the NFL. That's insane to me, the fact that he held so much faith in who he was and his value that he just beat down wall after wall after wall of doubt. [He] pushed forward to create experiencing the impossible.
That was miraculous.
I mean, how many times do you actually hear stories like this? Especially the fact that he cleared his name just a month or two shy of his parole being up. If his parole had completed, doesn't matter what would've happened, he wouldn't have been able to clear his records. If he had stopped believing in himself a day or two, a week, a year, a month earlier, imagine what would not have ever happened for him.
I can feel the passion that you have, just as a person in the society towards it. Coming to the table with Brian to talk about how to embody this role going forward, was your passion matched in the same way? What did that look like for him? Is his stance more reflective, and has he moved past those raw emotions?
My passion is not anger, it's disappointment. I do have a bit of reverence to allow people to understand the degree of severity of when it comes to these situations. My passions are very real because the fact is that this could hit me, this could affect me at any moment. When it comes to Brian, he's been through the anger. The very first question I asked him when I talked to him the first time we met was, “Hey man, are you angry?” He said, “No, I'm not. I've been through the anger, I want to put that to bed. What I want to do now is just live my life. Live the happiest best life that I possibly can. I want to live freely.” I think we both share the same passion, where we understand that people in positions are not doing the jobs that they are challenged to do, and that’s why we do the work that we do in ways that we hopefully can be most effective.
How did you prepare for the role emotionally?
Initially I was trying to get my weight up [for the role]. I was thinking about trying to get a trainer and then after a while, I was like, nah, let me just Brian train me. Brian and I spent our time in the gym and that's where we started learning more about each others’ mentality, our work ethic, how serious we are about this. From there, when it came to being on set Brian was on set most days and the days he wasn't there was a conscience choice because he had a hard time dealing with certain situations. When we did the solitary confinement scene, he had to step away but we would talk and before every scene I would hit him up and be like "Look man, what were you going though in this time frame and where was your mentality on it."
Before watching the film, some of the critiques I saw when it first premiered at the L.A. film festival were, "It's a great film that came out at the wrong time.” They felt it was “bad timing" given the height of the #MeToo movement. Did you have any of those reservations?
I can't compare my pain to yours, yours is equally as valid as mine is. I know that from a very basic and narrow and, to a degree, I would say emotionally immature perspective, people like to compare what this is and could be to the #MeToo movement. What they have to realize is as far as the victims for the #MeToo movement, they deserve their voice. They deserve to be represented, they deserve to seek justice. On the flip side of that, there are also victims who are in prison for crimes that they did not commit. I'm talking robbery, I'm talking rape, I'm talking drug charges.
With Brian's story, a judicial system has failed because they did not do their jobs. Brian had evidence. Basically, we have the scientific lab report that's saying it was literally no sex. [Brian’s] lawyer has this in her hand and she tries not to use this evidence right. She chose to say, I'm going to figure out how to win this case and not lose, so I'm going to go in there and tell you take a plea deal, not fully explaining the consequences of what pleading out means, because 97 percent of cases plea out as opposed to fighting for their innocence and their justice. We’re talking about a judicial system that has failed people on all sides, so there's no comparison or really parallel when it comes to the #MeToo movement. They deserve their respect and they deserve their placement. Out of respect for victims of the #MeToo movement, we don't ever bring that up because we feel like, who are we to ever in any capacity compare? That's not who we are, that's not what we do, and that's definitely not who or what Brian is. They deserve their justice. Brian, being in his position, also deserves his justice and what the audience has to acclimate to doing is seeing the full scope of the flaws within these situations.
Are you familiar with the Albert Wilson case?
No. Please educate me.
A former University of Kansas student was sentenced to over 12 years in prison for an alleged rape, where there was no DNA evidence that they had sex. He and the young woman went to a club underage at the time, none of them were carded, and afterwards, “fooling around” happened that she alleges was rape but he says was not. The minimum for rape convictions in Kansas is 12 years, and he was recently sent to prison to serve out the sentence even though he maintains his innocence. The timing of Brian Banks coming out and sharing this message is interesting because of how similar the DNA situation is, provided his actual innocence. It makes you think about how hard it is to experience a redemption moment like Brian did.
I think that anytime to address flaws when it comes to fighting for justice, is the right time. For people who think, oh is this the wrong time, no we are talking about a real issue that happens on a daily basis and the fact that we're bringing it to light... The right time is today, now, yesterday. It's always the right time to talk about anything that's going to fight for true justice.
When it comes to Brian's case he did all of his time. He was a couple months shy of parole being up when he exonerated himself. So he did a year in jail, he did five years in prison and then he did five years on parole, living that caged hell on the outside of prison. Brian didn't get any kind of break when it came to his sentence. He wasn't let off early, he wasn't handed a break really even with the C.I.P. If it wasn't for him really fighting for himself he would've been lost, lost to the system. I do hope for this young man’s sake, presuming his innocence, that he gets the help that he needs because it's out there. Hopefully this film sheds a little light on more people that need that help.
A frustrating thing is not knowing when, if or how an entity will advocate on your behalf and fight for you the way you want to fight for yourself. Like you said, Brian had to find a way to prove, "Hey, I'm worthy of being helped. What do you think should be the takeaways as far as advocacy, especially in fine line situations? The whole idea that you may likely be innocent but there could be a doubt that you're not and how that shapes the way people approach your situation.
I remember when I first met Brian, in order to really take on this role, I had to believe him. If I was going to represent this man, for me this is not about a job opportunity or check. This is about what I’m personally putting my name behind and what I believe in. I had to believe him and I did. If you put yourself in a position professionally or charitably where you are able to and you’re supposed to help build the need, do the due diligence and do the work. Go out there and make yourself a bit more accessible. Granted, I understand there's a lot of people who might say "I'm innocent" when they're not and, again, if you do the work, you get as much info as you can. As much evidence as you can and just make yourself available for these people to find you so they can access you. There's a lot of people in prison who don't realize that they have access to more help on the outside. If they know they have more access, they might be able to actually help represent themselves in a position where they can clear their names.
I say if it's family and friends, do as much research as you can. We have access to more resources than ever in this particular age in time and reach out and find out these organizations like the C.I.P, the California Innocence Project. If not that, you might have to go do the work yourself, get a private investigator to go look at the location, the scene of the crime. Just like with Brian's case the DA, no one went down to investigate where the girls said that she was kidnapped. If they had, they would've known that everything that she said was a lie. Given the time of day, given the access, given the people that would've been around, there is no possible way that she could've been dragged, kicking and screaming down an open hallway with all these doors open and students in class. Regardless of what they would've found, the fact is again they didn't do their jobs because no one went down there to investigate the scene of the crime. The scene of the supposed crime, that is the biggest issue there.
Also, if you're put in a position to do a specific job you have to do, step up to the plate. Don't be lazy and don't play the agenda bias of I'm just trying to get from point A to point Z. No, you have people’s lives in you hands and you are committed to that.That is what you're doing is to help actually save some lives, so do that.
One of the interesting nuances of the film is the presentation of “Kennisha Rice” and the part she plays in setting Brian's life back. It’s very interesting that she was not presented as malicious, sneaky or intentional; her inconsistencies were driven out of fear from her mother’s point of view. Do you think it's something to take into account when looking at some of the people who make these accusations and wind up ruining people’s lives, And the way they're seen after that?
With this film, our priority was not to demonize her. If we were going to show her, we were going to show her as a human being, given Brian's current perspective of not being angry and not wanting to demonize her, not get revenge on this woman, anything like that. He's free of that. We want you to come up with your own idea, if you happen to understand her and sympathize with the fear and maybe you've made the same terrible choice in the situation. That's on you. We don't want to direct how you see this person.
As far as what may come of this, if it's karma coming back at her, it's not karma that Brian threw out her. Brian is telling his story and he has to be honest of that. However, we have to accentuate the fact that they are flawed human beings and this is what can happen when you don't take responsibility for your own flaws. When you don't look at it yourself and understand the power you made holds in the situation, these are the mistakes that can happen. We are not trying to get people to hate this character because that would contradict the entire journey that Brian as been on. We don't want you to hate anybody. We’re over that. Focus on the faith. Focus on the happiness. Focus on the belief and the fight that Brian had to fight for who he was in his value and maintaining his innocence knowing that he was still worth something.
What do you hope unsure audiences take away from this film and this very real story?
I caution against my selfish ambitions when it comes to that question. I just hope people take away hope and belief in themselves and the power that they will, when it comes to actually helping someone else who maybe in need, I hope people answer the call if every they are or feel called to do so.