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Interview: Sherri Shepherd Talks Faith, Justice, and ‘Brian Banks’ Movie

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In 2002, football player Brian Banks’s dream of playing for USC and the NFL was cut short when he was falsely accused of raping a fellow high school student. After Banks served a nearly-six-year prison sentence, he petitioned the California Innocence Project to take up his case. The organization helped him mount new evidence that caused the district attorney to dismiss all of the charges against him in 2012. “Brian Banks” depicts how Banks (played by actor Aldis Hodge) fought to prove his innocence and realize his dream of playing professional football. Faithfully Magazine spoke with actress Sherri Shepherd, who plays Banks’s mother Leomia, about faith, justice, and how she’s raising her son in the Black Lives Matter era.

Thank you for taking the time to give Faithfully Magazine this interview. What was the first word that came to mind after you originally read the script for “Brian Banks?”

The first word that came to my mind was probably faith.

Why did that word come to your mind?

Because Leomia was really a strong person of faith, and it has helped her get through this entire ordeal. It is what helps her make it through being wrong for her son. She also had to go through a crisis of faith because she had done everything that she could to keep her son away from, you know, the streets. She did everything the textbook says you’re supposed to do, and even still, um, it was a tragedy to tell her son, because in that moment you question God. What should I have done differently? Why is my child going through this? Before you get to the “count it all joy,” you go through some stuff… I just saw all of that when I read the script, and it just hit me.

There is a powerful scene in the film where your character looks at Brian after his release from prison and says, “You deserve happiness, not shame, not guilt” and there is a cross above your head. In that moment, I couldn’t help but feel like your character was the Christ-like figure. How did you think about your role as you were preparing it?

You know, I’m a mother as well. When I read the script, my son Jeffrey was 12 years old and I said, “Oh my gosh, he could be Brian Banks, my son.” [I thought about] having to be an advocate for my child. We’ve got unique challenges. He was born at five and a half months, he was one pound and 10 ounces. Everyday having to advocate for him and having to believe in my son against all of the projected eyes from the doctors when they said my son would have cerebral palsy and have mental challenges, and believing that he would not. There was a lot of that that went into it [the role].

Coupled with the meeting with Leomia and hearing how much she loves her son and didn’t feel like she was any kind of hero. But that love was the bedrock of his sanity when he was incarcerated and when he got out it was her love that kept him. Aldis Hodge, who plays Brian Banks, well his mother was always on the set, and you don’t see Aldis without his mother. So the love of this man, who plays my son, for his mother — it was all of that wrapped into one.

Sherri Shepherd and Melanie Liburd Brian Banks
Sherri Shepherd and Melanie Liburd in “Brian Banks.” (Photo: Katherine Bomboy/Bleecker Street)

I’m not a parent yet, so the thing I kept wondering while watching the film was, is there an inherent faith that mothers have for their children that everything will or can be all right? It just felt like your character had this unending belief and confidence against all odds that things could be better for her son.

I think that we feel there is no option. It has to be. I think that’s the one thing we cling onto as mothers, like you gave me this gift, God. You wouldn’t have given me this if you didn’t mean for it to be good. Maybe that’s why we’re surprised when those things do happen, we’re so close to that situation. But yes, I think it is unshakable faith. It comes with the territory when you have a child. You know, I’m giving it to the Lord.

“Brian Banks” was released in theaters just a couple of months after Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us about the “The Central Park Five” teenagers. How is this film similar or different in terms of how the criminal justice system is portrayed and how Black men are treated in the system?

I think it also shines a light on the lack of justice for us and sheds the light on what we need to transform the judicial system. We really need to step in and be a voice about who we elect to preside on that bench and to be a D.A. because goodness forbid your child is ever in front of one of these officials. Boy, you want to know you did the work to find out what is the conviction rate of the judge and what is the color of the people he convicts. Also the D.A. — you really want to do the work because the judicial system failed “The Exonerated Five.” The judicial system failed Brian Banks. So I think it’s similar in that respect.

When you think about your own son, how do you try to prepare him for all that could come his way? How do you think about these issues of injustice against Black men and about raising your son to be a man?

It’s truly heartbreaking. It really, really is to tell a boy who will go up to a police officer in a minute and hug him, which was great when Jeffrey was eight and was really cute. But now Jeffery’s 14, he still acts like a 10-year-old, but his body. . . he is tall, thicker, his voice is deeper, he’s got facial hair. The things that I have said to my son who has the best heart is, “If the police give you a hard time, you must ask for your mother.” (He still calls me mommy.)

So I have to explain that there are people who will not like you because of your skin color. Then if you get stopped by the police, you have to ask them to call your mommy. You cannot say anything. I mean, there was an instance where a little, a Black teenager went to help someone who dropped their cell phone. And he went to pick up the cell phone and the police beat him. So I tell my son, even if something happens, you can’t step in and help.

So, on the one hand, I’m trying to tell my son, “You can be anything you want to, just be a hard worker,” but I still put these limitations on him. I thought we had marched and had done away with this, but truly, it’s heartbreaking to have had those conversations and even now to explain why somebody would go into a Walmart and try to kill every Mexican in Walmart who has brown skin.

It ends up being ironic: fighting for our humanity to be acknowledged, but then having to not be fully human in order to protect our humanity. In order to protect our physical lives, well, we can’t be as friendly. We can’t be as gregarious as we naturally would want to be because people might perceive us as a threat. So how do you cope and do self-care with all that’s happening in our country?

It’s a lot of prayer and it’s a lot of faith because at the end of the day, with all the evil that we have out here I feel like humanity, faith, and love will basically win out. Some might call me naive. It starts with one person and then another person, more people times two. Now I also think on the practical side, yes, we do have to fight for our rights. We can’t be silent now. We have to get together, and we have let our voices be heard. So you can love, and you can fight for your rights for the next generation.

One last question. What feeling will movie goers walk away from the “Brian Banks” movie?

I think they will feel there is some triumph in “Brian Banks.” If you were to meet him, he’s the most gregarious, loving, joyful person I’ve ever met. He technically could still be bitter holding it against people because his life was taken away, his career was taken away. But he doesn’t, and I think people will be inspired to know that you still can keep going on. And even if you feel that thing that is your purpose or your calling was snatched from you, it’s not the end because Brian’s outlook still changed the world. He did get to play four games with the Atlanta Falcons. But he has a different calling now and it is literally fighting for people who don’t have a voice. He is on the board of the California Innocence Project, which is who helped exonerate him, and he goes around the world speaking to people about how you find your smile, how you forget, how you let go, how you keep pushing, and probably has done more to touch people than he would have if he was a pro-football player.

So true.

He has a smile, and his mother — who had a blanket of sadness around her because she could not protect her child. I think that guilt has really played with her through the years. But to see the success that Brian is having, the love that he’s getting… It was nice to see Leomia at the premiere, and to see her laugh and take joy in the love that her son is getting is great.

Well thank you, Ms. Shepherd. Thank you for sharing your experiences with our readers.

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Chanté Griffin
Chanté Griffin
Chanté Griffin is a freelance journalist and the author of Loving Your Black Neighbor As Yourself: A Guide to Closing the Space Between Us. Her socially conscious work centers the intersection of race, culture, and faith. Join her Substack community.