Historically significant films have a way of entering our respective spheres of influence, notably because they either keep historical perspective in context, or they embellish the truth for a fictionalized accounting, elevated for dramatic purposes.
“The Banker,” which opens in limited release this weekend and debuts on Apple TV+ on March 20th, is a good litmus test for both theories.
The story by David Lewis Smith, Stan Younger and Brad Caleb Kane (screenplay by Smith and Younger along with Nolfi and Niceole Levy) focuses its attention on the first two African American bankers in the United States.
As the film opens to a senate inquiry with Anthony Mackie’s Bernard Garrett in the hot seat, we get a sense of the type of man that Bernard is. We are just as quickly transported some thirty years prior to when Garrett was a young kid in rural Texas. We learn early on that Garrett has a knack for algebra and for financial formulas. We also learn from his interactions with his dad that he is going to fight his own fights.
There’s an interesting transition as father warns son to not upset the order of things, namely that banking is very much a white man’s world. Young Garrett realizes that he cannot make his way, equitably, in Texas so he packs up his wife, Eunice (Nia Long) and their son and moves to Los Angeles where he starts a plan to buy buildings in underserved areas, namely those with higher vacancies.
The story throws roadblock after roadblock in front of Garrett, but he is determined. Through that determination, he encounters the raucous Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney). Through Garrett’s ingenuity and with Barker’s support, they start buying up property. Their efforts would lay the foundation for integrated communities in the greater Los Angeles area, a progressive initiative.
Eventually Garrett attracts the attention of Joe Morris, played by Samuel L. Jackson. When we first meet Joe, especially through Garrett’s eyes, we see “Mr. Big” himself: flamboyant, outgoing. Jackson plays Joe Morris with the same smooth style we’ve come to know him for; he might be overstated on the outside, but when it comes down to brass tacks, he is all business.
Once they take a minute to get to know one another, they realize just how much they need one another. However, the times aren’t ready for their next venture, the purchase of a bank, even in progressive 1960’s California. They need a face, and that face is in the form of Nicholas Hoult’s Matt Steiner, a failed small business owner. In a tongue-in-cheek moment, Steiner admits to Garrett, “who knew people wouldn’t eat ice cream cones in their cars?”
Steiner is every bit as ambitious as his benefactors are, but he is exceptionally green in terms of business. The film spends time building up his confidence for a world he knows nothing about. Hoult plays the character with great excitement, but it seems a bit out of place for the lower profile that Garrett and Morris would have preferred. That’s not to say that Hoult’s performance is bad; the character was probably not as well defined as it could have been relative to Garrett and, even to Morris. Their best scenes together are earlier in the film when they’re grooming him.
As Garrett’s ambitions start to get bolder, so too does Steiner’s desire for more responsibility. Joe warns them that their ambitions will be their undoing. The story doesn’t hold back those punches; in fact, it takes them head on. Mackie doesn’t shirk away from those punches in his performance. He welcomes the challenges.
Eventually, Nolfi brings us back to where we started: the senate trial that sought to understand how two African American gentlemen could own not one, but two banks. They eventually go to prison, but not before Garrett has his say. It is when Mackie defends his character’s actions that we see the breadth of the story.
The film plays out better when the more interpersonal moments occur between characters, namely Steiner’s grooming, the development of the relationships between Garrett and Morris, and even more, between Garrett and Barker. Nolfi did a superb job in casting and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography is gorgeous. To the extent that this had an influence on the film, both Mackie and Jackson are producers in some capacity, making it a passion project for both.
It shows too. The film’s social implications are obvious. It certainly has brought another aspect of the banking industry to light that I didn’t know I would be interested in. There is a more modern implication behind the scenes involving Bernard Garrett, Jr and his half-sister, Cynthia in a sexual abuse case, something that came to light right before the film was due to premiere at AFI Fest last fall.
“The Banker” is a movie for the modern times. It doesn’t embellish history; it embraces it head on. Within that though is a story that can’t quite manage all its characters and their situations. It tries too much to be an important piece of film history while showcasing the amazing talents in front of and behind the camera.
- The Banker