THE BANKER (APPLE TV+) (2020)
SYNOPSIS: Inspired by true events, “The Banker” centers on revolutionary businessmen Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), who devise an audacious and risky plan to take on the racially oppressive establishment of the 1960s by helping other African Americans pursue the American dream. Along with Garrett’s wife Eunice (Nia Long), they train a working class white man, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), to pose as the rich and privileged face of their burgeoning real estate and banking empire – while Garrett and Morris pose as a janitor and a chauffeur. Their success ultimately draws the attention of the federal government, which threatens everything the four have built.
Unfortunately for Apple TV+, ‘The Banker’ never got the awards-season attention it was set up for last year after one of the film’s producers was accused of sexual abuse and wanton revisionism. To add insult to injury, its planned two-week limited theatrical rollout in March was thwarted when the coronavirus hit. Yet those curious about what drew the streaming service to acquire this drama will ultimately be rewarded with a thoroughly engaging historical biopic which more than transcends its ostensibly self-serious trappings.
If you haven’t yet heard of Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris, we’d suggest you turn to Google only after you’ve seen the movie. Played by Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson respectively, both whip-smart businessmen broke the real-estate colour line in Los Angeles in the 1950s, owning more than 175 downtown properties during their prime, and becoming two of the wealthiest African Americans in the country. Their ploy involved recruiting a white frontman, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), whom they schooled to secure them deals they would otherwise be denied access to.
It is a fascinating tale all right, told largely from Bernard’s point-of-view – beginning from when he was a shoeshine boy outside the main bank of small-town Willis listening to his customers talk finance, then moving to Los Angeles with his wife Eunice (Nia Long) to find his fortune, then teaming up with the Irish businessman (Colm Meaney) to buy up property in white neighbourhoods, and last but not least partnering with Joe to make a bid for the prestigious Bankers Building for leverage over the banking institutions it counts as its tenants.
Clearly inspired by Steven Soderbergh, for whom he had written ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ for, director and co-writer George Nolfi employs a caper-ish take to the material. There is much fun in the unlikely pairing of Bernard and Joe – the former low-key, cool and rational; and the latter loud, garrulous and freewheeling – and even more fun when both of them start giving the working-class Steiner tutorials in golf, etiquette, Scotch-drinking and algebra. With full credit to Nolfi, his montage of financial maneuverers involving cap rates, multiplicative inverses and loan packages is surprisingly intriguing.
Only in the second half does the film wear its activism on its sleeve, with Bernard revealing in his purchase of the Willis bank a deep-seated conviction to better the lives of the people of his community by giving them access to capital and home ownership. Bernard ain’t no martyr, but he made his own mark in a little-known chapter of civil rights history. Their enterprise would eventually become undone, less so by Bernard’s personal hubris than an over-estimation of someone close to him; even so, the turn of events leading to a high-profile reckoning in front of a Senate committee is less compelling than their earlier rise to success, and some may even find the social commentary at the end somewhat underwhelming.
If the screenwriting (credited to Nolfi and three other writers) loses steam towards the end, the acting never does. Mackie brings his signature poise to play Bernard, calibrating his act perfectly to match that of the irrepressible Jackson. As similar as it may be, there is no denying Jackson’s effortless magnetism or how his usual braggadocio is a perfect foil to Mackie. Between Mackie and Jackson, there is little room for Hoult to shine, but the young actor makes the best of what time the story accords his character, especially in the final act.
So even as it may have gotten some bad press leading up to its release, ‘The Banker’ still has a lot you can bank on, including top-notch performances by Mackie and Jackson, a riveting true-story on which it is based and Nolfi’s snappy direction. We’d wish it turned out more poignant than it ends up being, but this is no doubt the sort of old-fashioned, prestige picture those looking for some polished storytelling will definitely enjoy. Trust us, your time investment is safe with this one..
Review by Gabriel Chong