Breaking tells the real-life story of Brian Brown-Easley, a former veteran so failed by systemic injustice and incompetence, he ends up holding a bank hostage to demand the benefits payments he is owed – just $892. To mark the UK release of this film, we will take a look inside the real-life story, from the original incident at the bank, the resulting press coverage, and what impact the film has had on the real people and institutions involved.
Breaking: What Happened to Brian Brown-Easley?
Who was Brian Brown-Easley?
Born 1983 in Williamstown, New Jersey, the youngest of 8 children, Brian Brown-Easley signed up as a Marine at 18 years old. Serving in Kuwait and Iraq, he rose to the rank of Lance Corporal and received honourable discharge in 2005. He married and had a daughter, but his life became plagued by mental health issues. Diagnosed with PTSD, he also suffered from schizophrenia and paranoia; this led to a spate of disappearances, as well as stays in mental hospitals and non-profit housing facilities. At the time of the incident, Brown-Easley was staying in a $25-a-night hotel, scraping by on a disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
What happened in the bank?
In July 2017, Brown-Easley did not receive his usual disability benefits
payment, leaving him unable to pay rent, and severely vulnerable to
homelessness. After calling the crisis line and visiting the regional
office, his issue remained unresolved. A few days later, he entered a Wells
Fargo bank, claiming to have a bomb. He took two employees hostage, then
called 911 to inform the authorities, and a local news station, WSB-TV, to
explain his predicament – he demanded his $892 benefits payment from the
VA. He was put through to a negotiator, also a former Marine, who talked
him into giving up a hostage. Just as Brown-Easley was about to do so, a
police sniper shot and killed him.
Breaking ends with the statement that Brown-Easley’s family never received the $892 owed to him. Gell’s investigation revealed Brown-Easley was likely denied this payment because of his failure to attend enough classes while studying on a Veterans’ tuition grant. This resulted in him losing eligibility for this grant. Although the VA did not consider the fact Brown-Easley was suffering from severe mental health issues during this assessment of his eligibility. However, after the article and the feature film, there seems to be no real push to make institutional changes to the VA, allowing them to recognise the full array of complex factors of a case like Brown Easley’s
Breaking – behind-the-scenes
Abi Damaris Corbin, a Boston-based director of short films, discovered Gell’s article; it “broke [her] heart”, reminding her of her veteran father’s struggles with the VA and inspired her to create a feature film based on what happened to Brown-Easley. She enlisted Kwame Kwei-Armah, a British actor, playwright, and director, to co-write the script. In preparation, they interviewed people who were there on the day of the incident. They also spoke to Brian’s ex-wife, gaining her approval of the film, and listened to the transcripts of the 9-1-1 operators.
Director Abi Damaris Corbin’s film is all about the performance of John Boyega who is terrific as Marine Veteran Brian Brown-Easley. Limited to either interacting with others over the telephone or engaging with the two hostages’ he’s taken in the bank, Boyega manages to make you feel for Easley’s predicament. Whilst he is without doubt wrong in what he does, or did, we see enough of his life to make us realise how he’s came to the decision he has.
In terms of action there’s virtually none, helicopters flying overhead and police officers’ running everywhere, which seem at times to be verging on the ridiculous, are the only things that break us away from Easley’s interaction with those outside and inside the bank. Michael Kenneth Williams, in one of his last roles before his untimely death in 2021, is the hostage negotiator whilst Connie Britton has a small part as a journalist who Easley tries to tell his side of the story to.
There is a good chance you might know the outcome, especially if you’ve read our article on the real Brian Brown-Easley, but thanks to a captivating performance from Boyega, Breaking is a film about so much more than just a bank robbery.