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Wed. May 27th, 2020

Film Review: ‘The Banker’ comes up short on its promissory note

Apple had a lot riding on the success of The Banker, an historical race-based drama starring Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicholas Hoult, directed by George Nolfi.  Slated for its world premiere in the coveted closing night slot at the AFI Film Festival last November, The Banker was set for a strong awards push, bolstered by the success the previous year of Green Book, a film similar in style and content.  It was not to be, however, as the producers were forced to pull out of the festival at the last minute because of sexual abuse allegations that arose within the family of one of the real-life characters portrayed in the film.  Not only were its awards hopes scrapped, but the film was pushed from November to March, and it has only just now become available to stream on the Apple TV+ service.  Although Green Book managed to overcome its myriad controversies during awards season last year, The Banker seemed to irrevocably suffer and looked destined for the dust heap of history, a devastating blow to Apple, who were looking to compete with Netflix and Amazon, who both have already jumped way ahead in the feature film race.  

But Apple and The Banker could reap some unexpected rewards as millions of Americans are now homebound due to the Corona virus and are thirsting for new things to watch on their streaming services.  Unfortunately, it may not prove to be the critical or commercial boon that Apple was hoping for, as its old-fashioned and bland style stifles an interesting story, despite a thoroughly delightful performance from Samuel L. Jackson.

The Banker tells the true story of Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Jackson), two black men who work the system to become two of the biggest bankers/real estate titans in the country in the late ‘50s – early ‘60s.  It is a fascinating tale, how these two men managed to build their wealth and empire from behind the scenes, hiring Matt Steiner, a white man (Nicholas Hoult), to be the face of their business in order to not raise any suspicions—think BlacKkKlansman, but with banking.  

Much like Hidden Figures and 12 Years a Slave, The Banker tells another heretofore unknown story of the black experience in America and screenwriters Niceole R. Levy, George Nolfi, David Lewis Smith and Stan Younger do well to paint the picture of what institutional racism looked like before the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  Even though Bernard is a genius with numbers and has had a knack and a passion for real estate since he was a kid, there is no breaking through the walls that are set up to prevent his success, so he has to get creative.  He moves his wife (Nia Long) and son to Los Angeles and starts pounding the pavement, looking for undervalued buildings to purchase, renovate and rent at a profit.  His knowledge, ambition and hard work are all for naught, however, when nobody will sell to a black man, so he finds a white partner willing to put up the capital and be the face of their plan, agreeing to share the profits, fifty-fifty.  When his partner dies suddenly and his racist widow refuses to honor their handshake agreement, Bernard is forced to start over from scratch.

But when a bank refuses to even meet with him to discuss a loan to keep the business going, Bernard is motivated to set his real estate sights higher than just apartment buildings.  Whether out of spite or genuine financial interest—or both—Bernard decides he wants to buy the largest building in Los Angeles, which just happens to house several of the biggest banks in the state.  But, to do this, he needs another financial partner, who he finds in colorful nightclub owner Joe, who doesn’t mind the idea of making a lot of money at the establishment’s expense.  The last piece in their plan is Matt, a white blue-collar friend of Bernard’s son, who is willing to take a crash course in finance, real estate and golf in order to be the hired white face of Bernard and Joe’s plan.

The movie really picks up when the three main characters come together, and their plan is put into full motion.  In scenes reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, Matt takes meetings and signs documents while Joe and Bernard are listening in, disguised as chauffeurs and janitors.  There is a delightful comic effect to all this, despite the underlying racism of it all.  Mackie, Jackson and Hoult work well together, as their chemistries offset each other nicely.  The contrast of personalities between Bernard and Joe is the best part of The Banker, as Mackie’s aloofness is countered by Jackson’s loose, funny and warm portrayal.  After so many roles playing an acerbic, foul-mouthed cad, it’s nice to see Jackson soften the edges a bit and ease into this role that he was born to play.  It’s easy to forget that Samuel L. Jackson is an actor and not just a persona, and this is some of his best work in years.  And Hoult fits nicely somewhere between Mackie’s seriousness and Jackson’s levity, as he plays Steiner as a somewhat goofy but smarter-than-you-think kid who has ambitions of his own.  

It is ambition that eventually brings their whole house of cards down, however, as Bernard wants to keep gobbling up more and more banks.  He is seeing the effects of being the one banker who will actually give loans to black people and black businesses, after being denied financial security for generations.  The effects are wide-reaching, as people become solvent and start businesses, black neighborhoods start to flourish and black families are able to move to better areas.  Bernard is desperate to keep this going, but when his ambition leads him to want to go back to his childhood hometown in Texas, Joe tries to put on the brakes, knowing how much more of a challenge it will be to pull off their con in Texas.  But Bernard is convincing and Joe ultimately relents, and, as with any big scheme that keeps getting bigger, things get blown off course and Joe and Bernard are forced to face the consequences of their big dreams in a white world.

Despite the poetry of melding the personal with the political and the delicate balancing of the comic with the dramatic, The Banker still doesn’t work as a sum of its parts.  While the performances are entertaining and the screenplay never dumbs down the complicated financial elements, the rest of the film is a standard and unimaginative biopic, using tropes and clichés that diminish the best efforts of the storytelling.  But the effort is a noble one and Bernard and Joe’s story remains one worthy of telling as a key cog in the expansion of civil rights in America.

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