I sat down to watch The Banker a few days ago in Beverly Hills, some three and a half months after I was first scheduled to see it across town at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The film had been slated to have its world premiere as the closing night film at last fall’s AFI Fest, a coveted spot for movies looking to gain momentum for an Oscar push. Both the planned gala premiere and the film itself—the first to be theatrically released by Apple, which had just launched its Apple TV+ streaming service weeks earlier—was meant to mark the debut of new major distribution player and awards season disrupter.
But those plans evaporated in the hours before the curtain rose, causing Apple to take the unprecedented step of canceling the premiere and postponing the film’s release. (Netflix’s Marriage Story ended up taking the slot.) In the comments section of an IndieWire article, a woman named Cynthia Garrett—the daughter of Bernard Garrett, the real estate investor played by Anthony Mackie in the film—made allegations of sexual abuse on behalf of herself and her sister against her half brother Bernard Garrett Jr., who his father’s provided life rights to the filmmakers and was part of The Banker‘s early promotion. (Garrett Jr. denies the allegations.)
So how does the film play now in the relatively drama-free calm of a plush screening room, so many months after the controversy erupted and only a few days before Apple quietly pushes it out on a few screens before launching it on its streaming network?
Unfortunately, it is with more with a whimper than a bang. In telling the story of a pair of real life African-American businessmen (Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson as Joe Morris) who use their profits from real estate investing in Los Angeles to surreptitiously purchase a pair of banks in Texas using a white man (Nicolas Hoult) as a front, The Banker is a sadly facile and largely surface level rendering of a profoundly complex problem that deserves more attention.
THE BANKER ★★
Directed and adapted by George Nolfi (2011’s The Adjustment Bureau), the film is much more interested in ginning up relatively run-of-the-mill, up from the bootstraps uplift and discussing the vagaries of real estate investment strategy than it is uncovering and exposing the machinery that allows for and maintains the institutional racism that defined 20th century money lending in this country. Terms like “redlining” and “racial covenants”—the main tools that were used by banks and real estate interests in Los Angeles and elsewhere to ensure that African Americans and other non-Anglos were excluded from property ownership and investing—get nary a mention here. The movie seems to posit that systems that locked families into generational poverty can be overcome as long as you have enough business acumen, pluck, and derring-do.
Mackie, who also served as a producer, plays Garrett with the careful remove of a chessmaster. Samuel L. Jackson, an executive producer, plays his bourbon-swilling, cigar-chomping opposite—a landlord whose ownership of a nightclub and other properties gave him the means to bankroll Garrett’s investments—played by Jackson as if he is imitating a lust for life rather than embodying the real thing. Nia Long plays Garrett’s wife Eunice, who sometimes dresses up as a custodian to keep a closer eye on one of the banks her husband co-owns, and doesn’t get to do much more than be supportive and loving.
The film never drags; indeed, it somehow manages to make the thankless task of explaining how real estate investments need to be structured to turn a profit surprisingly engaging. The era is well-rendered, especially considering the film’s limited budget—but, even then, the sets come off as somewhat airless facsimiles.
Looming over the film’s courtyard apartments and bank branch lobbies is the same question: What is the value of taking on challenging and difficult topics if doing so ends up glossing over and softening everything that made those subjects worth tackling?
Unfortunately, the film is too soft-edged and incurious about the world that forced its story. These instincts render the whole enterprise the feeling of a color-by-numbers inspirational period piece rather than an urgent tale that resonates with today’s ongoing conversation about social justice and generational poverty.
This lack of a deeper investigation into the larger impact of the story—which ended in Garrett serving a federal prison sentence for his part in the scheme, an outcome that obviously had a destructive impact on his family, though that is not shown here—was the source of The Banker’s undoing in more ways than one.