This is what living within a big historical event looks like
Filmmakers who tackle themes of social inequality sometimes allow agendas to run roughshod over storytelling. Producer Anthony Mackie and director George Nolfi take a more engaging approach in The Banker, delivering a teachable moment about racial injustice while keeping drama front and center.
The film owes much of its watchability to an intriguing main character and top-notch performances from Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson. Strong language and a split focus are drawbacks.
The Banker is “inspired by true events” mainly from the 1950s and ’60s. Mackie plays Bernard Garrett, an African American math whiz and business mastermind. Thick-rimmed glasses and a plain gray suit belie a fervor to make money and create opportunities for black people.
Los Angeles is more open-minded than most places, but Garrett meets resistance from the city’s banking establishment when he buys properties in white neighborhoods and flips them—demographically—renting them to blacks. Joe Morris (Jackson), a wealthy black nightclub owner, helps Garrett bankroll his ventures. Larger-than-life baddie seems like an easy paycheck for Jackson. Still, he nails his turn as Garrett’s sidekick—part tutor, part tempter. Mackie shines as an ambitious yet strait-laced idealist.
The money rolls in after Garrett schools Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a working-class white friend, in high finance and high society so he can be the trio’s public face. Garrett’s ability to click with a spectrum of personality types is fascinating. Steiner’s saga is essential to the narrative, but more than once it diverts the spotlight. For example, I felt the film lingers too long on Steiner’s arithmetic and golf lessons.
It’s Garrett’s dream to return to his small Southern hometown and replicate his success there. But Willis, Texas, is no Los Angeles. Morris sums up the situation.
“Two Negroes manage to buy two banks full of white folks’ money—in Texas—and loan it to other Negroes.” Garrett is defying the social order, a vexed senator warns. Politicians and rivals conspire to take Garrett down, and wealth and ego threaten to compromise the partnership as well.
The March release of The Banker, the first major original motion picture from Apple TV Plus, comes after a four-month delay. Originally scheduled for a November 2019 debut, the film met with controversy when the two real-life half-sisters of Garrett’s son, just a boy in the film, accused him of sexual abuse. The studio pulled the film, tweaked some details, and erased Bernard Garrett Jr.’s co-producer credits. (No harm in a few pixels of historical revisionism, right?) None of these details surfaces in the film. The objectionable content consists of smoking, drinking, and bad language.