Just a few short years ago, Sherri Shepherd shared The View stage with one-time NFL hopeful, Brian Banks, whose football career was cut short following a rape accusation that was later determined to be false. Tried at 16 as an adult, the Los Angeles-born athlete agreed to a plea bargain under pressure that came with a five-year prison sentence, followed by five years of probation. After his release, Banks successfully worked with the California Innocence Project to have the charges dismissed, and appeared on The View to discuss his case. Sitting in the studio audience that morning was his mother, Leomia, who stood by her son as he experienced the many injustices of the modern-day American justice system.
Flash-forward to 2019, and Shepherd is now portraying Brian’s beyond-brave mom in the new biographical drama, Brian Banks, a role that challenged her to speak in Leomia’s voice... literally. The actress tells Yahoo Entertainment that her big emotional scene — where Leomia confesses to fears that she’s failed her son — isn’t a screenwriter’s invention. “That was Leomia’s speech,” Shepherd reveals. “Those were her words.” (Watch our video interview above.)
Even though Leomia’s words were coming out of Shepherd’s mouth, her mind couldn’t help but turn to her own son, Jeffrey. Born with developmental delays, the now 14-year-old teenager “acts like a little 9-year-old,” according to his doting mother. “He’s silly, and he wants to come and hug you, but he looks like a 15 or 16 year old,” Shepherd adds. And it’s that discrepancy between his appearance and his actions that has her concerned about how others — particularly those in law enforcement — might react to Jeffrey as he grows older. “I have a son who could literally be in Brian Banks’s position. If you have children, that’s the first assignment you have — to protect that little one. When you feel like you failed, it’s devastating.”
It’s no secret that the conversations African-American parents have with their children about how to interact with police officers are very different than the ones that occur within other families, and Shepherd says that she hasn’t yet broached that difficult subject with her son. “I don’t know how you prepare [for that]... to have to have that conversation with my son that people will not like you because of your skin color — they might try to harm you. Even if you’re pulled over, don’t say anything until you talk to your mom. Don’t go outside wearing your hoodie. There are so many restrictions I’m putting on my son. I tell him you can be anything you want to be, but here are the boundaries. It’s pretty heartbreaking for me.”
With those thoughts upmost in her mind, Shepherd hopes that Brian Banks will bring attention to the way young African-American men are disproportionally tried and sentenced within the judicial system. “I hope that the film inspires people to use their voices to change the justice system,” she says, emphasizing that that change begins at the ballot box. “We really need to do the work to pick the right D.A., and the right judge, because God forbid your child is ever in front of one of those people who holds their future in their hands. You want to make sure that they represent you.”
Brian Banks is currently playing in theaters. Visit Fandango for showtime and ticket information.
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