On July 3rd, 2017, desperate for help and with seemingly no one taking his complaints of pain seriously, retired Marine Brian Easley walked into an Atlanta-area bank, gently informing a clerk that he had a bomb. He didn’t want to rob the bank, he insisted; he simply wanted the money he felt the VA had denied him for his own care.
He also wanted to be heard. Easley phoned both 911 and a local news station to explain why he was going to such extremes. Despite his best efforts to remain calm, he frequently sparred verbally with police negotiators, scaring the two clerks locked inside the bank with him.
This tragic story of one man at the end of his rope has been recreated in the new film “Breaking,” which opens today. John Boyega (“Star Wars,” “Attack the Block,” “Detroit”) delivers a master class in his portrayal of Easley—easily switching gears between rage at a broken system that has burned him with tender moments of humanity.
“When we heard recordings of what was happening inside of the bank and heard his cadence, he was really well spoken and really polite,” said Kwame Kwei-Armah, co-writer of “Breaking.” “I found that fascinating and dramatic…and went against every stereotype we see about someone holding up a bank.”
Kwei-Armah fleshed out the script with Abi Damaris Corbin, a filmmaker making her debut as a feature director with “Breaking.” Corbin first sent her partner a copy of an extensive article about Easley written by Aaron Gell for Task & Purpose.
“My heart was broken,” Corbin said of first encountering reading the article. She added that she connected with Easley’s pain due to what her own father, a Navy veteran, experienced. “I recognized that righteous rage, the gentle honor that Brian had.
“I wanted him to be heard,” she said. “I didn’t want it to happen again. It helped me understand my dad a little more from reading Brian’s story.”
“Abi was in Los Angeles and I was in London. I would start [writing] at 10:00 at night, she would start in the afternoon,” said Kwei-Armah, who added that, as a playwright, he was keen to deliver realistic dialogue for the dramatization of this real-life situation. “One wants to write dialogue that would make an actor who likes character really say, ‘I want to play this character and feel it, and I hear it.’”
Corbin said that she had never written a screenplay with a partner before, but working with Kwei-Armah, even across the distance of eight time zones, made for a joyful experience.
“We had a really fast alignment of values [and] worldview,” Corbin said. “And a lifelong friendship came out of that process.”
The screenwriters spoke with Jayla, Easley’s daughter, as well as his wife, Jessica, who provided input not just about Brian Easley but also helped Boyega in channeling the former Marine onscreen.
“She operates from this place of love. She loved him and said as much,” Corbin said of Easley’s wife. “She gave us so many clues into his character that it really opened things up for us and made communication for John and me so simple on set.”
Boyega was always the filmmakers’ top choice for the lead role. Initially his schedule didn’t allow it, but eventually it freed up for Boyega to participate. The British actor had already assayed several films requiring an American accent, so his working in the Atlanta patois didn’t present much of a challenge, according to Corbin.
“John has a base level of craft. He knows how to slip into the shoes of another, and he really has a good grounding of process,” the director said. “I had done an immense amount of research to help him prepare, and he took that and [went] full-throttle into Brian.”
The talented cast includes Nicole Beharie and Selenis Levya as the two bank tellers Easley takes hostage. Both were praised by Corbin for their stellar performances alongside Boyega.
“They both come with a pretty deep well of craft and a lot of heart,” she said. “Nicky doesn’t draw so much on performances in a scene; she draws on people. It brings this unpredictability because humans are unpredictable. And it brings this liveliness, this honesty that in the midst of the bank hostage situation” ups the ante, Corbin said.
And, in one of his final screen appearances, Michael K. Williams appears as a police negotiator. When asked to share her memories about the late “Wire” actor, Corbin speaks of Williams in the present tense, as if he is still among us.
“I love Mike and he is who people say he is. He’s a kind, kind soul,” she said. “His eyes dance when you’re in conversation. He loves people. You don’t have it with every actor, but we had a really easy relationship.
“And I want to remember his joy because that comes from a place of choice—and he chose to see people. He was a man who carried his scars and who chose to live out of joy.”
“Breaking” was shot on a brisk 25-day shooting schedule. This likely helped to stoke the tense atmosphere of the final product, which is a thrilling, if sad, journey for the audience.
Corbin hopes that, if anything, “Breaking” will encourage some people to see beyond their own problems and lend a helping hand when able.
“When it’s possible to reach out, [people should] go the extra mile,” she said, “or, when you get that phone call, you answer and you make it your problem.”
Her cowriter, Kwei-Armah, concurs, saying he hopes that audience members realize that among us are “walking bombs” who need our help, both in military and civilian life.
“How do we help to take away some of the pain? We listen!” he insists. “We try to see people. And I think if someone had seen [Easley], had heard him, if the system had yielded in some way to that hearing, he might not be where he is right now.”
“Breaking” opens in theaters today