TV watchers may recognize Aldis Hodge as a familiar face from Leverage, where the North Carolina-born, New York-raised actor became a fan favorite for his portrayal of Alec Hardison, a wise-cracking yet affable hacker, for five seasons.
His resume has since been peppered with acclaimed films like Straight Outta Compton, where he played N.W.A. member MC Ren, and Levin Jackson, a supportive husband to Janelle Monaé’s strong-hearted Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures.
A common thread linking the latter part of his most recent work is the trials and tribulations African Americans are up against in a society where systematic racism is entrenched in its DNA, and his latest project is perhaps is the culmination of what that represents.
The 32-year old stars in Brian Banks, a biopic based on the inspirational true story of a man named Brian Banks who was wrongly imprisoned for a sex crime he did not commit.
The 16-year-old all-American high school football star had a bright future ahead of him until his life was abruptly derailed and dreams deferred until he was 25. Instead of trekking across the lawns the University of Southern California, Brian languished in the industrial prison complex, spending five years behind bars followed by five years on surveillanced probation.
The visual re-telling of Brian’s story premieres at an opportune time. This week, August 20 marked the 400th anniversary of when the first enslaved African arrived on American soil. In retrospect, Aldis’s expansive career has encapsulated the 400-year struggle of African-Americans to survive and overcome the yoke of bondage, from the N.W.A.'s rise amidst Ronald Reagan's war on drugs that decimated Black communities to the segregated 1960s backdrop of the civil rights movement.
Most recently, he portrayed Noah, a runaway slave, on WGN’s critically acclaimed Underground series before the John Legend-produced show was canceled after its second season. Arguably, Underground was just as much about America’s sordid past as it is about its present-day where slavery and Jim Crow has branched into the prison industrial complex.
“I took it as a grand opportunity just because of the fact, when the initial idea of the show came to me, I was like, if this is a series about enslavement, how does it work for 5 or 6 seasons?," he told BET in an interview earlier this year. "Do we want to see our people in persecution for that long? Where is the gratitude that comes out of this for the audience? But when I read the pilot I was like ‘oh’, it shows us in the situation, but not made of the situation. It showed people in bondage, not slaves. It gave us dignity. It gave the people who went through that an actual identity. They didn’t bring slaves to America, they brought engineers and doctors, brilliant people."
The untold story of the slave-led revolution, that has long been sanitized in American curriculum, provides a sobering mirror to the complex legacy of American history that the U.S. still hasn't come to terms with, which was not been lost on Aldis.
“For me to be able to expose that they had hopes and dreams and still had the strength to find love in those times was immensely powerful because we’d never see it in our history books. Our schools failed us in that," he said. "So, the opportunity to add to the dignification of our people was a high honor. I look at all of those characters as superheroes. They actually added the show to curriculums in schools. This is the effect that you can have as an artist. That’s what I love.”
Coincidentally, the role of Brian fell into Aldis’ lap in 2017 right after Underground was canceled. Although Brian was not subject to the horrors of chattel slavery, he was faced with a new kind of enslavement. While on probation, Brian learned that he had to wear an ankle monitor everywhere he went.
As part of his preparation for the role, Hodge put himself in Brian’s shoes quite literally. From dusk to dawn, Aldis wore an actual GPS ankle monitor every day, even when he was not on set, tap into Brian’s psyche. The transformative experience was a sobering look into the extent that Black and Brown people are disproportionately tethered to the courts and put through the legal wringer.
“When we got down to Memphis for pre-production, the director, Tom Shadyak, asked me if I wouldn’t mind wearing an ankle monitor for real and not take it off. I said I’m with it.” Aldis said. “I probably had it on for a month before we shot a scene where I had to remove it. You sleep with it, you shower with it. You have to plug it up while you sleeping because if the battery dies it will buzz and wake you up."
Besides being flat-out uncomfortable, the actor admitted he was a bit self-conscious at first.
"That month of hyper sensitive awareness was insane, because you don’t want people looking at you funny. You got the long jeans, it’s hot in Memphis, and I got [on] double socks with sweat pants. My feet hot as hell. But I did that for a month. Brian had to do that for five years," he said. "That’s insane. I can’t imagine what his mentality was like. But it was awesome, because it does give you a renewed sense of what freedom actually is. And very much renewed sense of appreciation for it.”
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the different characters Aldis has played over the years encompassing different aspects of African-American’s 400-year struggle. With the role of Noah fresh on his mind, Aldis did some deep digging into history pre-chattel slavery to not only emotionally connect with what Brian went through, but bridge the experiences in an overarching way. The Destruction of Black Civilization by Chancellor Williams, which Aldis described as a "fantastic book,” helped him reflect on what it meant to truly be free in the face of persecution.
“I was always intrigued by the idea of what happened to the value of Black people. How did we get to the point of enslavement, how did we get colonization, [and] how did we get to the point of influencing so many elements of the culture of the world and reaping so little of the benefits? That's why I started reading the book...to see where our value started,” Hodge explained.
“American history stops us at kings and queens in Europe, but I wanted to see us before that. It does help to reaffirm what I believe in terms of in my value as a Black man. When it came to this film, it was intrinsically helpful because Brian always understood his identity as a man and didn't attach his identity to what the court or world was saying about him as a man. He had to fight for his value and disassociate himself [from] the negative perspective from the outside.”
Brian Banks is currently out in theaters now. Watch the trailer for the 99-minute film below.
With additional reporting by Jerry L. Barrow
(Photo by Jeff Vespa/WireImage)