Based on the inspiring true story, Brian Banks tells the story of the former Atlanta Falcons football player who overcame a wrongful conviction that sent him to prison in high school, eventually accomplishing his dreams. Starring Aldis Hodge as Banks and Greg Kinnear as his lawyer, the film is part underdog story and part legal drama, but all of it is impactful.
POPAXIOM got the opportunity to speak with the real-life Brian Banks, the man behind the true story, about his experience and what it felt like to have his life turned into a movie. Brian Banks opens in theaters on August 9. You can read POPAXIOM’s review here.
On Seeing His Life On The Silver Screen
POPAXIOM: What was it like seeing your life turned into a movie?
Banks: Very, very surreal, man. It’s a very exciting time to be in this space and to have this opportunity and have such a tragic experience, a story that I went through, be now used as a message for people to learn from and to grow from. It’s a very unique space to be in. I’m very happy knowing that yes, this is the story of mine and that the movie is called Brian Banks, but it’s a representation of so many other people that have experienced similar situations such as mine.
POPAXIOM: In the film, Aldis Hodge gives a very powerful performance portraying you. How did you work with him to make sure he did justice to your story and its message?
Banks: One thing that was really awesome about Aldis was that he said, “I don’t want to act this role out, I want to become you.” and he did that. I think that us, just spending a lot of time together — we spent a few months together before we actually went on scene and shot this film, so he got an opportunity to get to know me, get to know my family. We trained together in the gym. We were open with each other, we confided in each other about things that I had never opened up about. We went from being two people who were working together to actual brothers, man. I’ve got so much respect for him, his challenge, his craft, what he brought to this project and how he represented me. Overly thankful. This man deserves a true award for his performance.
On Important Figures In His Life
POPAXIOM: The film talks a bit about your mentor Jerome Johnson (played by Morgan Freeman). Could you expand on how he impacted your life?
Banks: Mr. Johnson is my mentor. He was my mentor when I was incarcerated and, to this day, he’s still my mentor now. He was someone that came into my life at one of the roughest points of my life and he began challenging me in ways physically and emotionally in ways that I had never been challenged before, helping me to be self-empowered when it came to my emotions and my emotional control, assisting me to rediscover who I am and my capabilities. He just was a light that was needed in a very dark place, so I am forever thankful for him and his presence.
POAPXIOM: Your mother was an important figure in your life and you were raised in a single parent household. How do you think that she has affected your life?
Banks: I was in a single-parent household for a period of time, I also had a stepfather for six years, seven years of my life before he passed away with lung cancer. So once my mom raised us, the moments we were the three of us and my mom, you know, she dealt with a lot, she enjoyed a lot, she put up with a lot. My mom is the strongest woman that I know, the strongest woman that I will ever meet. She embodies what a mother should be and I’m forever grateful that it’s her.
On Fixing The System
POPAXIOM: You continue to work with the California Innocence Project to promote their cause. Why do you think it’s so important for people to give back?
Banks: The really obvious answer to that is me being a client of the California Innocence Project. The fact that they helped save my life, they helped set me free. They did the noble work that people shy away from and don’t want to get involved in. And if it wasn’t for them, there would be so many other people now behind bars for things they didn’t do. So it’s very important that we support programs and projects such as them. I mean, if you put yourself in a position where you were to be picked up today and arrested for a crime you didn’t commit, you would hope that there are organizations and programs such as the California Innocence Project that exist. It’s easy to not give attention to a situation that you can’t connect with because you’ve never experienced or you may not have a family member who’s experienced dealing with the law in this way. But that’s why we’re making this film and this film is being brought to the world. For those who have never experienced, here’s an opportunity for you to experience somebody else’s experiences.
POPAXIOM: In addition to this film, your story has been told through a book you recently published, the TV show “Final Appeal” of which you were a part, and of course you speaking publicly about it. How do you hope that telling your story will change public opinion in cases of wrongful conviction?
Banks: The change that I’m hoping for is that people realize this is a very, very serious issue. That it’s not a subject to take lightly. That there are real men, women, and children in cages as we speak for crimes that they didn’t commit, and it’s just not right. In no way is that performed in the right. So people need to be informed about this. People need to be enraged, to want to seek change and promote change, constructive change, good change that helps people. Because, like I said, the last thing that you would want is for you or a loved one to be in this situation and for the whole world to not care because they were not informed. So it’s important that we let people know what’s actually taking place and not push these stories under the rug.
POPAXIOM: Supposedly, the justice system functions on the assumption that someone is “innocent until proven guilty”, but that doesn’t always happen. What do you think needs to be done, not only to change the legal system, but also the way in which people perceive it?
Banks: Well first we need to restore the moral and ethical obligation back into the court system, where we seek justice and truth versus a conviction rate. You know, it’s one thing to be tough on crime, and it’s another thing to force crime upon someone and say that they did something knowing that they didn’t. We have to eliminate this plea bargaining system to a degree where our system isn’t based on it. 95 to 97 percent of all criminal cases end in some form of a plea bargain. It doesn’t mean that people are receiving pleas that are to their liking, either they’re being forced into pleas, they’re being exhausted into pleas from fear into taking some form of a deal. Our district attorney’s offices should be held accountable for the work that they do and the mistakes that they make, just as anyone else is held accountable in the system for the mistakes that they make. I think if we took away the gains from being tough on crime and added a responsibility and a punishment for sending the wrong person behind bars, I think it would really slow down if not eliminate wrongful convictions altogether.
On Overcoming His Struggle
POPAXIOM: When you signed with the Atlanta Falcons, you became one of the oldest rookies in the NFL and you were able to accomplish your dreams. How did it feel to accomplish your dreams even when people kept telling you it would be impossible?
Banks: It felt good, it really felt good. I never accomplished anything because someone said that I couldn’t. I really don’t pay attention to what people tell me about what my capabilities are or what my capabilities are not. I didn’t have any help, I didn’t really have much support when it came to dreams that I wanted to recapture. But that didn’t stop me from going and seeking out the things that I wanted for my life. Nobody will work harder than you for the things that you want in life. To be in that moment, to succeed in the things that I loved only adds to the testament of never giving up and never allowing someone to tell you what you are and what you’re not.
POPAXIOM: What advice do you have for people who may be struggling in a similar situation to yours?
Banks: The unfortunate thing about our system is that once they have their hands on you, it’s hard to really get those hands off you, even if you’re an innocent person. So it’s really going to require a lot of patience on a person’s part that’s involved or is having to deal with a wrongful conviction. Having patience, being empowered, and knowing that your emotions should not control the way you feel about things, but you should control your feelings and decide how choose to feel about those things. And just knowing that, you know, what we can’t do is allow one moment in time to dictate the duration of our life. There’s going to be obstacles and things of the unwanted, but it’s how you respond to those things and what you do as a response. The biggest advice that I could give you aside from that is to seek representation. Find you a lawyer that really cares about you that cares about your well-being that’s going to fight for you and do everything they can to try to save your life. It’s important that you find somebody that’s actually going to do the work and not someone who’s just kind-of going to push you along.
POPAXIOM: Your story and the film are all about perseverance. You never gave up despite all of the obstacles you faced. What do you hope people will learn from you and your story?
Banks: I hope that they learn that it’s not what you go through, but how you allow it to affect you, to remain strong and not allow one moment to dictate the rest of their life, to not give up on what you believe in and what you know to be true. More importantly, I want people to be informed about a flawed system that needs rebuilding, needs to be rectified. And it’s going to take us as a society to want to see those changes so that we can help those who can’t help themselves, speak for those that have been silenced.
POPAXIOM: The message of your story transcends the boundaries of age, race, ethnicity, and social status. Anyone can relate to it. Why do you think this is?
Banks: I think that we all deal with things that are of the unexpected, we all deal with experiences that are of the unwanted. But our character is not in the experiences, our character is in how we deal with those experiences and how we respond to those experiences. Being in control of your emotions and not allowing them to control you. Making the choice to be happy or respond positively to the things that you would normally respond negatively towards. I think that this is one of those stories that teaches you how to deal with hardship and traumatic experiences, and know that as long as you’re alive and breathing well you can still fight for peace and happiness. I’m really hoping that people are moved by this story. You may not be able to relate directly to the crime or what put me in prison, but the whole concept of never giving up, never breaking, and never folding. That’s the message we all could learn from it.
See Brian Banks in theaters beginning August 9.