On the morning of July 7, 2017, Lance Cpl. Brian Brown-Easley walked into a Wells Fargo Bank in Marietta, Georgia, stating he had a bomb in his backpack. The former Marine claimed the Department of Veterans Affairs owed him a monthly disability check of $892, and without that money, he would be homeless. So why did Brown-Easley hold up the bank if his issue was with the VA? As director Abi Damaris Corbin puts it, “he wanted to be heard.”
The events of that fateful July morning are now the basis of the new film, Breaking, starring John Boyega as Brown-Easley. Breaking puts a spotlight on Brown-Easley’s life, and how the standoff between police and Brown-Easley ended in tragedy. In an interview with Digital Trends, Corbin and her co-writer, Kwame Kwei-Armah, discuss the heartwarming qualities of Brown-Easley, Boyega’s magnetic performance, and the balance between showcasing a heartbreaking story with the wishes of his family.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. It includes spoilers about the film.
Digital Trends: This is the story of Brian Brown-Easley, and a lot of this film is based on the Task & Purpose article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him” by Aaron Gell. When you read the article and decided to make a film, what was the most important aspect of Brian’s story to incorporate in this film?
Abi Damaris Corbin: He wanted to be heard. When I first read the article, I was struck by a man who so deeply wanted to be heard. He was a bomb walking into that bank, about to combust. And he was a man of immense kindness who was a deep intellectual, who was rooted and grounded in his desire for a better, lovelier world for his daughter, for his family. It took a lot to walk into that bank just to be heard. My dad’s a vet, and I understood that righteous rage. There were so many layers to that righteous rage that I was able to unpack a lot more fully with Kwame.
Kwame, this is a full circle moment for you. John was in one of your plays, Seize the Day, back in 2009. You’ve seen him at the beginning of his career. Now, he’s progressing into a household name. What did John bring to this role that stood out to you the most?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: He brought everything. He brought integrity, he brought truth, but most importantly, he knocked it out of the park. He exceeded expectations. Everybody wants to be part of someone’s successful genealogy story. But the truth of the matter is the actor that I saw then had the potential to be a good actor. He is now a great actor.
As a viewer, I felt both happy and sad when Michael K. Williams showed up. Knowing how his life tragically ended, what do you remember most about working with Michael?
Corbin: His joy. He was a buoyant man. He was light on his feet. He had his heart on his fingertips, and I will remember his joy. I’m really grateful to have been on this journey with him. He saw people.
I read that you both reached out to Brian’s wife and daughter for their blessing to make this movie. Can you put into words how that conversation went?
Kwei-Armah: Yeah. I mean we were connected by Zoom, which always feels, at best, slightly impersonal, slightly distant. But actually, her warmth [and] her generosity in terms of allowing us to tell this story and to give us information that was deeply personal to the two of them. But it also allowed us to have, and Abi forgive me for speaking for you, confidence that the Brian we saw, the Brian we read about, and the Brian that we intuitively felt, was the Brian that she knew.
A lot of films focus on showing the death of the person as soon as they are shot and killed. But I found it interesting that the camera cuts away as soon as Brian is shot. The focus is on the reaction of everyone else — the police and the employees. What was the thought process behind that decision?
Corbin: There [are] a couple of things. The first for me is that he has a daughter. She is just a teenager at this point, and she’s going to watch this someday. He has a wife that he left behind, and he was a deeply loved man. We wanted to have Brian seen through a lens of love, but we didn’t want to shy away from the heartbreak, from the horror that happened that day. So it was a really fine line of us trying to have integrity with that, knowing that we wanted to showcase, in all its honesty, what happened, but knowing our first audience and who they are.
Breaking is in theaters nationwide on August 26, 2022.
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