Premise: black American Marine Corps veteran Brian Brown-Easley holds up a bank, taking two employees as hostages and threatening to detonate a bomb if his demands aren’t met. Will he get out of this alive? Well, most black folks might guess that the chances are slim to none, and you’d be right. In the hands of Abi Damaris Corbin (director and co-writer) Breaking is a thriller, but for most black viewers the suspense does not come from wondering what will become of Brown-Easley, but from contemplating if anyone in his life – bank clerk, hostage negotiator, TV journalist, or 911 operator – will listen to him long enough to understand what has led him to this moment, his breaking point. The answer?
This military veteran who served his country honourably and bravely now finds himself in dire straits and dependent upon a small disability cheque from the department of Veterans Affairs. On the verge of homelessness Brown-Easley initially argues respectfully with the white female veteran’s affairs administrator about why his payment of $892 has not made its way into his bank account. But her explanation about how his cheque was sent to pay tuition at a school at which he is no longer enrolled serves only to infuriate him. When she explains his option as waiting in a long snaking line for “information” about their programs to help destitute veterans, Brown-Easley finally loses it and is violently removed from the office. But since he is living in a dive motel and visiting his young daughter at his ex-wife’s house, we quickly come to understand that this loving and attentive father may soon end up living underneath the same bridge that we see him pass under as he goes about his daily routine.
But that routine is shattered when Brown-Easley makes the fateful decision to hold up a local Wells Fargo Bank. It is clear from the start that he did not have a plan. Why? First, he enters the bank when there are several clients and employees inside although he lets all but two go. Second, he only thinks to kill the internal security camera feed and shut the window blinds after he forces one clerk to call 911 and realizes belatedly that police snipers will certainly be sent. And third, he tries in vain to get a TV news station to broadcast his story live – his version, not that of the police – but is shut down at every turn by people who insist that they are “doing everything they can to help him”. As Brown-Easley soon realizes, even the 911 operator is stalling him on his demand to speak to a hostage negotiator. As we soon find out, that black police negotiator, Eli Bernard (played by the talented and recently deceased Michael Kenneth Williams) is almost as impotent as Brown-Easley, surrounded by mainly white police colleagues who dismiss, belittle, or undermine his directives and actions.
The black British actor John Boyega of Star Wars fame plays the lead role with an understated brilliance, showing the complexity of Brown-Easley’s inner turmoil. Boyega’s Brown-Easley is frustrated, sensitive, angry, compassionate, and volatile all at once. His two hostages, the black bank manager Estel Valerie (played by Nicole Beharie) and the mixed-race Latina Rosa Diaz (played by Selenis Leyva) are also complex in their emotions, at times terrified by Brown-Easley’s volatility (Diaz literally pisses herself in fear) and at others, clearly compassionate and concerned for the welfare of the man who is holding them hostage. Estel even offers to give Brown-Easley the $892 from the bank’s money, but he refuses on principle. Yes, this man who is holding two women hostage in a bank still has principles even though the government officials at the VA seem to have none.
Breaking is based on the true story of Brian Brown-Easley and the events that played out in July 2017 in an Atlanta suburb. It is about how individual neglect, institutional failures, and the inability of people to be adaptable and humane can lead to catastrophic outcomes. It is about how the US government, and its under-resourced institutions, repeatedly fail its veterans by denying them access to the essential support, funding, and services that they need. But what Breaking does so well is expose the hypocrisy of broken systems and institutions in a nation that routinely claims to celebrate its military as a symbol of patriotism and exceptionalism. What we see in Boyega’s Brown-Easley is a man who was pushed to his breaking point by a nation that failed him and an institution that humiliated him.