Teens have their horror films, comic fans their superhero flicks — why shouldn’t bankers and real estate professionals get their own movies? Especially when they tell a sobering and (mostly) true story about two unequal Americas?
Bernard Garrett was a Black businessman in 1950s Los Angeles who with his partner, a nightclub owner named Joe Morris, bought up commercial and residential properties until he owned more than 170 buildings, including major downtown parcels — all at a time when it was virtually illegal for a Black man to do so. He helped break L.A.’s real estate color line, did much to desegregate the city, and only ran into trouble when he bought a bank in his Texas hometown. He met LBJ, marched with MLK, and served time for fraud. Quite a life.
That life is served up to slick dramatic effect in “The Banker,” whose “inspired by true events” tagline gives it a lot of leeway (more on that in a bit). George Nolfi directs with a TV-movie straightforwardness and at two hours the film is overlong, but the story is an eye-opener and the central performances are terrific.
Anthony Mackie plays Garrett, a rare lead role for this simmeringly poised actor. Samuel L. Jackson plays Morris and brings his usual broad-brush braggadocio to the part. It’s a good mix: Cool and hot, brain and brashness, the long game versus a good time. “The Banker” charts Garrett’s climb up the L.A. real estate market, allying himself first with an Irish mentor (Colm Meaney) and then with Morris, whom he initially dismisses as a lightweight.
Morris is as sharp as he is loud, however, and the two break into the downtown market only by bringing in a white face: Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), an amiable construction worker whose crash-course in the finer points of finance and golf make for an amusing montage.
That Garrett and Morris rose to success by using a white front speaks to the realities of the time — and also the tightrope on which they’re walking. “The Banker” portrays the purchase of the Texas bank, with Steiner in over his head as the institution’s new president, as a fatal act of hubris on Garrett’s part, fueled by his desire to help his hometown’s Black population, previously unable to secure loans, while showing up the whites. Throughout, Mackie keeps a tight, charismatic lid on his performance, but Garrett’s partner senses the furnace burning beneath him, and so do we. When Garrett has to put on a janitor’s uniform just to go into the bank he owns, the humiliation ripples off the screen.
The talk in “The Banker” occasionally plunges hip-deep into financial mathematics — it’s literally formulaic dialogue — and this civilian sometimes felt he’d fallen off the back of a truck. Others may be delighted to find a movie that talks their language. Somewhat more problematic from a truthiness point of view is the character of Garrett’s wife, Eunice (Nia Long), who’s presented here as loving, supportive, and conscious of the longer road a woman might have to travel in similar circumstances. Garrett’s second wife, Linda (who’s not portrayed in the film), has taken vocal issue with “The Banker” and has issued a timeline showing that she, not Eunice, was married to her husband when he bought the Texas bank and ultimately appeared before a Senate committee on banking regulations.
Garrett’s son by Eunice was one of the film’s producers but has had his name taken off the credits after accusations surfaced last year that he had molested his half-sisters in their youths. Apple, which produced “The Banker,” postponed a December theatrical release and was in the midst of rolling it out to theaters when the coronavirus hit. This week, the film comes to the Apple TV+ streaming platform; it’s good enough that it should be more widely available. More to the point, the story’s important enough that a version less “inspired” and more accurate would be welcome.
Directed by George Nolfi. Written by Nolfi, Brad Kane, Niceole R. Levy, David Lewis Smith, Stan Younger. Starring Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicholas Hoult, Nia Long. On Apple TV+. 120 minutes. PG-13 (strong language, including a sexual reference and racial epithets, smoking throughout)