How ‘Breaking’ Subverted the Heist Genre to Tell Brian Brown-Easley’s Story

·15 min read

[This story contains spoilers for Breaking.]

On the morning of July 13, 2017, Brian Brown-Easley walked into a Wells Fargo Bank in Marietta, Georgia. He said his backpack contained C-4 explosive and, after asking customers and a handful of employees to leave, had two remaining bank workers lock all the doors.

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What happened next is a deeply emotional story first detailed at length by reporter Aaron Gell in 2018, and now by Breaking’s co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah and writer-director Abi Damaris Corbin.

The film, released in theaters on Aug. 26, recounts how Brown-Easley, who had not received his monthly disability check from Veterans Affairs — a meager but vital $892 — found himself on the verge of becoming unhoused. He had attempted, unsuccessfully, to sort out the issue with the VA through a number of channels, but at every point found a wall of bureaucractic apathy.

Desperate to avoid starvation and fearful of losing his $25-a-night hotel room, Brown-Easley stood instead inside that bank, calling 911 to let authorities know what was happening and calling local news station WSB-TV to let them know why. He not only wanted people to see how the country was failing the people it sent to fight its wars, but on principle, for the VA to return his $892 to ensure it didn’t continue to fail him.

Corbin and Kwei-Armah’s retelling of the final day in the life of Brown-Easley — a father, veteran and man described as polite, respectful and gentle — is seemingly on paper a heist thriller. But Corbin, whose father was a veteran, and Kwei-Armah, a playwright-actor-director and artistic director for the Young Vic, deliver something else entirely.

Starring John Boyega as Brown-Easley, alongside Nicole Beharie, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, Selenis Leyva and Michael K. Williams in one of his final roles, Breaking is a sobering, humane and narratively insular drama that bucks the conventions of a genre that frequently relies on its high stakes and dramatic action sequences to connect with audiences.

Instead, its focus keeps much of its story within the quiet four walls of the bank with Brown-Easley. That choice brings about an examination of a single man who gets caught in a series of societal machines that break down at every juncture, and as a result, is ultimately refused to fund his survival and instead paid for his death.

Corbin and Kwei-Armah talk to The Hollywood Reporter about why they upended the familiar genre in their Bleecker Street film to tell Brown-Easley’s story, how it helped them avoid exploiting his death, and how its all-star cast including the late Williams, helped shape their rendering of one man’s story.

This film was originally titled 892, the significance of which becomes clearer later in the film. But the title was changed to Breaking, which audiences see a visual reference to early on in the film. Why did you end up changing it?

ABI DAMARIS CORBIN Kwame and I set to get to the hottest part of the fire. We wanted to make sure that every line, every scene, every look that was written into the script was something that gave you more. And it can be really uncomfortable to be at the hottest point in the fire, but that’s the mandate we set for ourselves. So with 892 we felt like this is something that is representative of everything else in the film and that’s why our original title held. But as we sold at Sundance and added more people to our marketing team, they said audience members who don’t know the significance of 892 — who have just met this story — need to have a little bit more. They need to know how this film relates. So we talked again about, what’s the hottest point of this fire? This is a man who says I am a bomb in his spirit and he walks into this bank — a man of great gentleness — and is ready to combust. He’s at his breaking point. So that’s how we came to Breaking. We also thought about breaking news headlines and how callous we are toward that, and we wanted to make sure the audience is able to re-engage and be more empathetic to a man who is at his breaking point.

Connie Britton
Connie Britton in Bleecker Street’s ‘Breaking’

There’s a scene where the TV reporter Connie Britton is playing says she doesn’t want to exploit Brian. It’s an interesting and sensitive concept in a film like this. How did you all think about telling Brian’s story in a way that would not feel exploitative?

KWAME KWEI-ARMAH I think it began right at the very beginning of this narrative. Not of the narrative of the film, but the narrative of how the film was made. It began with Abi actually reaching out to me. This was a movie she wanted to make — and Abi will speak to this, of course — based on her own experience of living with her father being a vet and going through some of the things that Brian went through. But also Abi was like, Brian is a Black male, and so she also reached out to me. I felt like my job, in co-writing with Abi, was to seek not just the hottest part of the fire, but to access the righteous rage that sits inside of Brian — that comes out in genteel actions to others, but actually, is a righteous rage that is exploding against the brick wall that is the system.

We spent a lot of time thinking about, you know, do we see the death shot? And we don’t because we don’t want to exploit that or exploit the trauma of it. But what was fascinating for me was that this is a very 21st-century heist. He goes into a bank and he says: I don’t want money from the bank. I don’t want money from anyone who’s here. I want $892 from the system that owes it to me, and what am I going to do? I have not been heard so I contact a TV station, and I say, “Pick this up live.” That for me, pre-Instalive pre-TikTok was the thinking of a brilliant man. That was a very long way around of saying that for us, exploitation or avoiding exploitation, was about making sure we found the integrity behind the very notion of why he entered that bank.

The story remains mostly focused on the Black and brown characters and keeps whiteness — whether in the form of the authorities, the media or the VA — on the periphery. You do that not just with people but also physically, as much of the story’s action happens inside of the bank, instead of what’s typical of this genre and moving back and forth between what’s going on outside to amp up the tension. Why did you choose that narrative structure?

KWEI-ARMAH I think that’s a marvelous question because it was a conundrum: If you set a movie in a bank, it feels like a play and you go, “But it’s not a play. It’s a movie.” So Abi and I spent much time thinking about, do we even want to see the outside world? And then we came up with the approach of: it’s locked down, it’s inside and the dialogue and the cuts are that we need to have much movement on the inside, but stay on the inside. Abi was immediately directorial as we were constructing this. We don’t want to see outside at all. And when we do see outside, it’s like a Michael Mann movie. Then, we see the full accoutrements of the system. But it was very, very intentional.

I remember a moment when Abi was in the cut, and she sent me a note and said, “Oh, Kwams, I’m gonna have to put in a shot of seeing a soldier or a policeman run by.” We debated it and we said, “No, we don’t want to see the outside world until we go outside.” Because it was really important for us that we got on the inside of this man, as Abi has said. But we actually ran the risk — in a world where instant gratification is key — of people going, “Oh my god, this is a slow movie; this is just in one location.” But we worked to keep it tight enough for you to hold on. We will breathe into the outside world, but the outside world is secondary to the interior world of Brian.

CORBIN I love action thriller films. I have great respect for the genre and, as a cinemagoer, I appreciate it. But here’s the thing: Brian’s story is a story that met me in a soul place, and you really have to follow that thing that is deep inside when you first encounter the story. The thing that hit me about it was his humanity. Because my dad’s a vet, I lived with a lot of the VA struggle. He’s gone from agent orange from Vietnam. I’ve seen the day in and day out, and when I read Brian’s story, it gave me a new insight into my dad. It gave me more empathy. It allowed me to see him better. So for us, we needed to focus on the man, Brian, to see his humanity better. It’s a very multipronged thing, but we wanted to talk about the truth of what’s going on in the world. We talked a lot about this structure and of course, entering into it, all of it was very intentional in that way. The world around us is so divided that it’s really hard to navigate those systems that are broken. And the thing about the world that we live in in America is that even if you’re in a big machine, the cogs in the machine can move it, even if it’s really, really hard. We wanted to speak to the cogs in the machine and show that, very purely, if you see another person in front of you, you can change that circumstance.

Selenis Levya, Nicole Beharie and John Boyega
From left: Selenis Leyva, Nicole Beharie and John Boyega in Bleecker Street’s ‘Breaking’

With this impressive leading cast, many have a history of choosing projects that explore the nuances of Black humanity. I know you did a moment of silence on set to remember Brown-Easley, but can you talk about why these actors, including Nicole Beharie and John Boyega, were fits for these roles and how the cast and crew navigated each other on set with this heavier material?

CORBIN Well, first, if you watch Nicole, or John, and their work, you see an immense amount of craft. You see art and you see heart in their work. I had such respect for John from Imperial Dreams and Attack the Block. You’ve seen him give so much and he has a lot more to give as an actor. So I was really excited by the prospect of working with John and seeing him as an artist row into a new space in this role. It was very clear in our first conversation that he was a leader. He would set the tone for the other actors in the midst of it and, this goes into your second question of something that does demand a lot from you as an actor. Man, these actors made each other’s loads lighter. When Nikki’s on camera and she’s talking to John, John’s on the other side, right next to camera, and he’s giving her what she needs so that she can play off of it. The tension escalates. The nuances are captured because they’re able to talk to one another. John rearranged his schedule to be able to do that. The same for Mike.

When we were doing the scenes with Kiah [played by London Covington] in a completely different location, when she’s on the phone with him, John’s tucked into a little bathtub in the corner because that was the only spot where we could fit him and still capture that electricity of the performance. I’ve seen so much of what Nicole has done and just as an actress, I wanted to cast her right off. We had a couple of great conversations and it was really clear that she uniquely as an actress can add so much more to this role than a lot of people can access. She wanted this story to be told. Selenis just rounded out the team because she can access this level of depth. She’s lived through a lot and accessing that and channeling that into something into a role that forces you to go really deep, day in and day out on set. You just have to create a safe space as much as possible for your actors to do that because they’ve got to go places that are really hard. I’m so grateful that they were there for each other as a unit.

KWEI-ARMAH When we got to the end of the first draft, we immediately said to each other, literally at the same time, “Listen, we need to get this to John Boyega.” It just so happened that we sent it to him that night, and he was not available. But fortune, serendipity, whatever it is that you believe, happened. When we were ready to go, he was and found his way into filling Brian. I knew he had potential. I’ve seen John move from a boy to a man, and now I’ve seen him move from a man into a generational talent. What he does with Brian was even more than we could have imagined.

Michael K. Williams plays a police negotiator in this, one of his final roles, and it’s both interesting and powerful in the context of his own life — where he’d been and how he had chosen to help people in similar positions. Did he contribute to shaping his character from the script and if so, how did he influence the way people see his character onscreen?

CORBIN When Mike came into this, it was personal for him too. He’d experienced conversations like the ones his character had with Brian. He wanted to make sure that his role was not shown as a guy who was perfect. He wanted to come across as meeting his brother. So we talked about, how do you meet your brother? Well, if your brother’s never met you, you’d have to share repore. So Mike added a line about “on my daddy.” He added that line because he felt like he was accessing a more personal part of him. To show that his character wasn’t perfect, he shoved a reporter on his way out. He wanted to give hints. He knew that Brian’s story was the one that we were telling, but he wanted a mirror and we talked a lot about how to do that through the nuance of the conversation. For him, a lot of it is found in the moment with John and shaping that together, the three of us, to see we went here already. We went to a connection point, but now, how do we split apart and then come back in a stronger way? OK, let’s find a moment of respecting each other, conveying a hard truth.

Michael K. Williams
Michael K. Williams in ‘Breaking’

Mike’s character talks to Brian in a way in which no one else does. He tells him things that he doesn’t necessarily want to hear. But it’s a level of respect. So the framing for him was really about making sure that we’re telling Brian’s story purely. It was my experience through and through that he saw the crew, he saw the cast. We’ve been talking about Mike a lot in interviews. It’s still hard. I think a little more so today because today we are going to screen with him and today we are going to celebrate together. I’m just grateful that his spirit touched this film in a really beautiful, beautiful way. I was talking to his son this morning and he’s gonna march for Mike today and be here with us. I’m just so honored that I came to know this man because he inspired me to see people better in the way that I move. I hope that in coming to know Mike’s role, audiences will feel that too, because that was him. He saw so many people just in his short time with us.

The film ends not with a typical loud action sequence, but as a series of reflective moments. The lone end title card also doesn’t provide updates on where everyone is but reveals one simple fact: The VA has still not paid what it owed Easley to his family. Why was this the right way to end?

KWEI-ARMAH We rewrote that end maybe four or five times, and it just got quieter and quieter and quieter. The reason we wanted it to get quiet is because we’re not here to celebrate the trauma. We’re here to catalyze the debate around whether people are being seen. We are living in a time where we are asking to be seen more, to be heard more. And here’s a man who went into a bank to say “hear me, see me.” Our job was not to exploit that. Our job was to catalyze the debate.

CORBIN Just to add on to that, our culture is filled with information — Facebook, Twitter, all of those things. We wanted people not to just scroll past. We wanted a moment of reflection. We wanted that quiet catharsis, if you will. It’s really easy to move past things and the louder doesn’t necessarily make you pause.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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