HOLLYWOOD – Actress and comedian Sherri Shepherd is well-known for her quick wit but with the new gripping “Brian Banks” biopic, the award-winning former co-host of ABC’s “The View” was able to flex a wide range of acting muscles, showing a new side of herself.
The biopic tells the story of Brian Banks (played by Aldis Hodge), a junior at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif., who’s headed to the University of Southern California on scholarship and to a future NFL career as a linebacker. That future was upended in 2002 when Banks was wrongly accused of sexual assault by fellow student Kinnesha Rice (played by Xosha Roquemore).
“Brian Banks,” which premiered in theaters on Aug. 9, is more than just a tale of one man’s courage in the face of injustice. It’s also a story of the loved ones who lifted him up.
Shepherd gives an epic performance as Leomia Banks, the mother of Banks, who was a source of great strength that helped her son get through the traumatic time.
During the movie’s Hollywood press junket, I had the opportunity to speak with Shepherd. She shared how Banks’ mom Leomia inspired her performance and what she hopes the film will accomplish.
“I connected with Leomia immediately when I read the script,” Shepherd said. “Her courageousness, the love for her son, the devastation of not being able to protect her child, and her faith – and how it got her through.
“And if you meet Leomia, she’s very quiet, she’s very shy, she’s about to get her master’s degree. But she doesn’t feel like she’s any hero. She just says, ‘I love my son.’
“She was the bedrock of his sanity, when he was going through his deepest and his darkest moments,” Shepherd said. “So I connected to her as a mother of a child who could very well be Brian Banks. And I just was truly inspired.”
Despite maintaining his innocence, Banks was coerced into taking a plea deal, which landed him in prison for six years before he was paroled as a registered sex offender, forced to wear a monitoring device, and faced job prospects that didn’t include football or working anywhere near a school.
“Twelve years of his life was taken away because they just automatically believed somebody and didn’t do their due diligence,” Shepherd said. “And not only that, at 16 years old, they wouldn’t let him consult with his mother and they forced him to make a decision that affected the rest of his life. So being able to play that woman who advocates for her child was something really special to me. I have to advocate for my son Jeffrey all of the time.”
With the help of the California Innocence Project, spearheaded by Justin Brooks (played by Greg Kinnear), the criminal defense attorney and CIP co-founder, Banks’ conviction was overturned in 2012. His inspiring fight to clear his name included a shocking twist (spoiler alert: his accuser admitted on camera that he didn’t rape her), and ended with him being exonerated. Banks briefly got the opportunity to play for the Atlanta Falcons in the 2013 preseason.
The film is a story of triumph and perseverance against a failed justice system.
“I hope that we bring awareness to this judicial system and how unfair it is,” Shepherd said.
“I’m so excited about this project because I had to fight really hard to even get an audition for this part. It can be very hard for a comedic actress to go over to the dramatic side,” Shepherd added. “You need somebody that believes in you. For me it was (director) Tom Shadyac, who directed great films by Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. He believed in me and he gave me a chance.”
“Brian Banks” is directed by Memphis filmmaker Tom Shadyac. All of the film was shot right in the Bluff City, although the movie takes place in Southern California.
“It was so amazing working in Memphis. I shot all of my scenes there,” Shepherd said. “I didn’t know how much culture and history was in that city – jazz and the Stax museum, Graceland and the civil rights history. The amazing soul food – I had so much fun in Memphis. The people are so kind and loving.”
The inspirational biopic won the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year.