Harvard’s black students using game against Howard to celebrate culture First-time football meeting gives students opportunity to highlight diverse manifestations of blackness

The first football game between Harvard and Howard University has brought a new dimension to an age-old debate over “the real HU.” But for some black students at Harvard, the goal is bigger than bragging rights.

These students hope the game will help them build solidarity with Howard and strengthen the support network available to black students at Harvard.

When the leaders of Harvard’s Black Students Association heard about the game, they saw an opportunity for social engagement. Aba Sam and Kendall Laws, president and vice president of the association, respectively, started planning what is now being billed as the inaugural Black Ivy Homecoming.

This is a tip of the hat to the Black Ivy League, an informal reference to top-rated historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard, Hampton and Spelman. It’s also an acknowledgment that Harvard and Howard are top-tier institutions among the Ivy League and HBCUs, respectively; Harvard’s Business School accepts more students from Howard than any other HBCU, and many black students at both schools are working to create and maintain communities that celebrate diverse manifestations of blackness.

“We wanted to make it about more than just the game,” said Sam, a junior neuroscience major from Southbury, Connecticut.

In conjunction with Harvard’s Black Graduate Student Alliance (HBGSA) and the Howard University Student Association (HUSA), Sam and Laws organized a day and a half of social and professional events. Although administrators at both schools had to approve the plan, all activities are being led and funded by student leaders.

“We sold out of tickets to the event in two hours,”said HUSA president Taylor Ellison. As a result, about 55 Howard students, grad and undergrad, will make the trip from Georgia Avenue to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They can participate in a career panel, a talent show pitting Howard against Harvard, a pregame breakfast and a tailgate. And, of course, parties.

“We’re definitely not a big, big football school, but we do come out for certain games, like our Harvard-Yale game. We have tailgate culture. For this game, we think people will fill up the stands,” said Laws, a junior economics major from Atlanta.

Perhaps even more impressive is the housing plan. Travelers from Howard will be hosted by Harvard students the day before the game. This custom is traditionally only bestowed upon Yale students when their school plays Harvard. (Yale’s rivalry with Harvard is as historic and fun as Hampton’s is with Howard.)

“This event is going to be legendary,” said Ellison. She, Laws and Sam hope Black Ivy Homecoming becomes an annual event between Harvard and Howard.

Harvard defensive back Bennett Bay in action against San Diego on Sept. 15, 2018, at Harvard Stadium in Boston. The Crimson take on Howard this weekend.

(Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

According to Harvard doctoral student Tauheedah Baker-Jones, 41, more tailgate tickets were sold for this game than for ones against Yale. This is a big deal because the rivalry between Yale and Harvard is as significant as the one between Howard and Hampton. Baker-Jones is part of HBGSA as well as a Howard alum. She was happy to promote the event to graduate students and alumni from both schools. She’s enjoyed her experiences at both institutions.

“I can’t put a price on Howard,” said Baker-Jones, who completed her undergraduate degree at UCLA. “It prepared me for UCLA, for the social challenges I would face there.”

When she decided to go to graduate school, part of what attracted her to Harvard was the number of black faculty members in the Graduate School of Education. When she enrolled, she said, seven black female deans had just been hired, and she recalls proudly tweeting, “#Mydeanisblack.”

Just over 9% of Harvard’s graduate student population is black, and the percentage of black undergrads is slightly less than that. More black students are admitted than enroll at the Ivy League school.

Harvard’s name is impressive, but black students are also looking at other factors such as programs offered, financial aid packages, how comfortable they feel on campus, and location. As it competes with premier schools such as MIT, Stanford, Duke and Howard for high-performing black students, the school has also been working to make space for and embrace diverse expressions of black culture. There are several black organizations on campus, such as the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Caribbean Club, and the Black Community and Student Theater (BlackC.A.S.T.). Other groups embrace mixed-race students, black LGBTQ members and black engineers.

Technically, there are no sororities or fraternities on campus, but Baker said the members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity will be helping with the tailgate. In 2017, members of single-gender social clubs were banned from holding leadership positions in recognized student organizations, becoming varsity captains, or receiving College endorsement for prestigious fellowships. A plan to phase out such social clubs by 2022 was also implemented that year. However citywide chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc currently accept members from Harvard, MIT and other Boston area schools.

“The black community is small, close and tight-knit across social and gender lines,” said government and economics major Meshaal Bannerman, vice president of Harvard Black Men’s Forum. He said the group is a preprofessional organization geared toward masculine-identifying black men. While it’s important to Bannerman that Harvard’s black community be supportive of each other, he added, “The academic rigor at Harvard can be challenging, so it’s important to have a space for people who support you, not just look like you.”

Part of what influenced Sergine Cindy Zeufack and Antonia Scott to commit to Harvard was the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

“We celebrate black excellence. We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.” — Sergine Cindy Zeufack on Kuumba, Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus

“I wanted to join a singing group of some sort with a group of people. It [Kuumba] celebrates black art, creativity, spirituality. I enjoyed the people and community,” said Zeufack, a senior human developmental and regenerative biology major from Rockville, Maryland. She’s also first-generation Cameroonian American.

Scott added, “Kuumba supports blackness in all of its forms. And there are no auditions; anyone can join.” The Cranston, Rhode Island, native is a senior majoring in African American studies and minoring in molecular and cellular biology.

Kuumba is Harvard’s oldest existing black organization on campus. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Zeufack said it’s as close as Harvard gets to an HBCU.

“We celebrate black excellence,” she said. “We’ve created a space for black people at Harvard and the surrounding community to find a refuge in a world that can be hard to be in. It’s open to any black person looking for community, but anyone can join.”

“Creating safe spaces” is a phrase several black student leaders used to describe the mission of their organizations. In part, this is because in 2019, some people still question whether black students are smart enough to be there.

Zeufack said she’d had a few encounters with strangers who asked her where she went to school. When she replied that she’s at Harvard, they seemed to not believe her. One person even asked if she was on the track team.

“Nope,” she recalled. “I guess I’m just smart.”

She’s not knocking any athletes. Black students make up just under 9% of Harvard’s athletic population, while 16% are white and Hispanics and Asians each constitute 4%. Zeufack just wonders why her admittance is questioned.

“If there are so many people who question if you deserve to be there, you start to wonder about it too,” she said. And she’s not the only one.

Experiences like these led to the #ItooamHarvard photo campaign and play in 2014. Led by black and Japanese student Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, 40 black students, including those with multiracial backgrounds, shared their experiences with institutional racism and feelings of alienation on campus. Similar campaigns were launched at Georgetown, UCLA and the University of Michigan that year. The campaign at Harvard is officially over, but black students still talk about it and its impact.

“That campaign was about black students feeling unwanted and disrespected,” said Bannerman. “But it’s twofold. We black students are working to fix the community on the inside so the outside noise doesn’t hurt as much.”

For some black students, the work to make black students feel comfortable on Harvard’s campus is paying off.

Police were called on three black female students at Harvard; Baker-Jones was one of them. She said a woman in her off-campus apartment called the police on Sept. 8 because Baker-Jones’ music had too much bass and she couldn’t focus. The ordeal ended peacefully, and the two women ended up exchanging contact information. The neighbor felt bad and agreed to contact Baker-Jones if the situation happened again.

“I’ve never not felt welcome at Harvard,” said Baker-Jones. “Campus has done a lot to make us feel supported, but now we have to work on how we are treated outside the community.”

Since then, the black students association has established a black graduation ceremony that honors the accomplishments and culture of black graduates. Additionally, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, appointed its first black editor to lead the newspaper. Kristine Guillaume is Haitian and Chinese.

And then, of course, there’s Harvard’s football team. Bennett Bay is a junior government major from Atlanta. He’s a member of the black students association and a defensive back who plans to play in the game against Howard.

“The black community definitely makes an effort to make the freshmen feel welcome,” he said after practice. “The biggest shock for me was the weather. I was not used to six months of snow.”

Besides the black students association, Bay has found his community on the football team. At the end of the day, that’s the goal of each black student organization: to help black students find spaces and groups where they feel accepted and respected.

“I love the culture of the team. It’s bigger than me,” he said. He’s excited about the game and for the opportunity to be on the first Harvard football team to play against an HBCU.

Toni Harris made history by getting a football scholarship. Now she needs to make tackles. Free safety has already overcome doubters, cancer and family trauma. Playing against men doesn’t faze her.

FAYETTE, Mo. — Perhaps you’ve heard of Antoinette “Toni” Harris. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.

Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She’s arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she’s hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on Aug. 31.

Fayette is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City, a four-block town surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms. On a sweltering Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are serving coffee and tea as the radio pipes in The Platters singing “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t seen the Billboard charts since 1956.

We’re two blocks from town, in the center of Central Methodist’s campus, with Harris, head coach David Calloway and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Harris’ hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt and has a diamond stud in her left nostril. She stands only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but her 165-pound frame is rock-solid.

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway, left, and defensive backs coach LaQuentin Black, right, both view Toni Harris as a budding talent who has the skills, aptitude and eagerness to develop.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

She didn’t play for her high school varsity team and only sparingly during two years of junior college. Her demeanor isn’t that of a sports star but of a wide-eyed college student. But Toni Harris is famous.

“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”

The world discovered Harris over the course of 60 seconds on Feb. 3. During Super Bowl LIII, Toyota debuted a commercial featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.

“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”

Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line, the one she proudly says she wrote herself, the one that sums up her remarkable journey.

“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”


It would have been easy to write off the young Harris when she was growing up on the west side of Detroit. Placed in foster care at the age of 4, she ended up in three different homes by the age of 15.

“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”

Harris met her biological father, Sam Clora, four years ago. He is now a part of her life, as are her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers). But her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.

Facing obstacles is nothing new for Toni Harris. At 4 years old, she was placed in foster care. And in her freshman year in college at Toledo, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

One of Harris’ obstacles was simply getting onto a football field. She became infatuated with the sport when was 5 years old, watching her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.

As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”

With no PAL team willing to accept her, she picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games. She finally talked her way onto the junior varsity squad at Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit. She was the only girl on the team and played wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is, ironically, how she suffered her worst athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But in the midst of transitioning to senior varsity, she was booted from the team.

“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’ ”

Actually, Harris did have a plan: playing in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her another blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome?” — Toni Harris, on dealing with cancer

“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she says. “The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”

We can’t help but ask how she absorbs these gut punches. She’s taken so many.

“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”

Harris enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. There, she was thwarted in her efforts to play football when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.

“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”

Harris then tried women’s soccer, but it didn’t scratch her itch for football. So she signed up at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) while still enrolled at Golden West and pursued (and ultimately earned) two associate’s degrees simultaneously: one in social and behavioral sciences, the other in criminal justice. At ELAC, she badgered head football coach Bobby Godinez to put her on the team. And, eventually, he caved.

But Harris didn’t just want a uniform, she wanted to play. After everything she’d already been hit with, how much harder could she get slammed on the field?

“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”

Harris never missed practice, never missed a meeting, never missed the weight room.

“She was very, very persistent with her goals, and she wouldn’t give up,” Godinez says. “And when it came down to it, her teammates were the ones who said, ‘This girl belongs here.’ ”

That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’ ” Harris rarely got on the field that season but still got a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She elected to stay at ELAC, and as a sophomore she played in three games, in which she broke up a pass and made three tackles, including one for a 24-yard loss.

She put those highlights on video and sent them off to four-year programs in the hopes of catching a coach’s eye.

“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Harris’ highlight video went out right before the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was championing the young woman who was challenging stereotypes and defying assumptions. Radio hosts talked about her. Good Morning America and The Today Show featured her in prime guest spots.

The gamble to stay at ELAC had paid off. Now she had scholarship offers from five more colleges — one a Division II school in the NCAA, the others in NAIA.

But only one of those coaches impressed her: Calloway at Central Methodist. He’d been there before the hoopla, emailing her, phoning her, recruiting her. And he’d always been straight with her.

“He wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things,” Harris says. “I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”


Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has spent 21 years coaching at the collegiate level. At Central Methodist, he faces an uphill battle. Since he took over as head coach in 2016, the Eagles have gone 8-24. But judging from all of the thank-you notes from former players and students pinned to his corkboard, Calloway is a patient and supportive coach who has generated a reservoir of goodwill.

Calloway leans back in his swivel chair and we ask the obvious question: How did it feel to make history? We’re surprised to hear Calloway say he figured some other female athlete had already done it.

“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway says Harris will be fighting for her position in the defensive backfield with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

In fact, several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game. Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State. But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship.)

And now Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player,” says Jennifer Saab, director of communications at the NAIA.

So if Calloway didn’t intend to make history, why did he recruit Harris? He said he sees his role as giving young people opportunities, not just to play football but to graduate. He views Harris as a budding talent, one with skill, an aptitude for the game and an eagerness to develop.

Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”

If Harris takes the field this season, isn’t she bound to run into guys, big guys, who don’t think she belongs there?

Calloway doesn’t seem concerned.

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life,” he says. “Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help. That’s what I [see] from a character standpoint. When she puts her mind to things, she can get stuff accomplished.”

Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’ ” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in position to make proper tackles.”

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life. Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help.” — Central Methodist head coach David Calloway

When the hits come, Harris is convinced she’ll be ready. “I don’t feel like it’s out of the norm for me to be playing with men,” she says. “I mean, [former NFL wide receiver] Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5-6, and I’m much bigger. … Football is about being mentally strong. Are you mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you? Are you mentally ready to get over that and go to the next play?”

It remains to be seen whether Harris will be on the field against Clarke University on Aug. 31. Calloway makes it clear that she’ll be fighting for her position with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

But, as Harris has demonstrated before, competition only feeds her drive.

“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”

That’s probably true, especially if she follows her dream to play in the NFL. If she doesn’t make it to the pros, would she consider playing in one of the women’s semipro or amateur leagues around the country?

“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”

After meeting Harris, we try not to assume she’ll do it all — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we try not to fantasize that one day she’ll live her dream and put on an NFL uniform.

It’s not easy, because she’s so easy to root for.

With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”