THE BANKER – Review
In the true-story based THE BANKER, two black businessmen have an audacious plan in pre-Civil Rights 1954: use a white former handyman as a front to to buy real estate in whites-only areas of segregated Los Angeles, circumventing then-legal discrimination, with the intention to rent to black lawyers and doctors who integrate those neighborhoods. Having made a fortune with that plan, the pair come up with an even bolder one, to buy a small town bank in Jim Crow-era Texas, with the intention of making home loans available to black families.
Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson star as the two black entrepreneurs, young, buttoned-down, math genius Bernard Garrett (Mackie) and born-rich, playboy club owner Joe Morris (Jackson). THE BANKER starts out with a fun, caper film vibe to it. Nicholas Hoult plays Matt Steiner, the young white handyman who works for Garrett on the first buildings the would-be real estate entrepreneur buys and renovates in LA, who gets tapped for the role of front The three form an unlikely partnership to do an end run on prejudice and disrupt the rules of real estate in 1954 Los Angeles, then move on to even more ambitious plans for buying a bank in 1963 Jim Crow segregated Texas.
THE BANKER is based on an amazing true story (although why it is “banker” instead of “bankers” is entirely not clear) and so the filmmakers deserves credit for bringing it to the big screen, even though the film has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. This is Apple TV+’s first foray into film releasing, and it features a top-notch cast, nice production values, and an appealing mid-’50s to early ’60s period visual style with plenty of gorgeous costumes and cool cars. However, the film itself is pretty conventional film-making, and not everything about it works, despite the strong efforts of the cast, particularly Mackie. Still, the first half is entertaining, fun and inspirational, with a classic underdog story and a winking caper film approach. Add to that a sepia-toned visual style and loads of period details, it has plenty of popcorn movie appeal. But when the story turns more serious in the second half, when they relocate from California to Jim Crow-era small town Texas, the film struggles to shift from the playful caper film approach to something more appropriate to the more dramatic material, which makes THE BANKER feel a bit like two different films.
This story takes place before the Civil Rights era, when Jim Crow segregation laws severely restricted the rights of blacks in the South, and racial prejudice and restricting neighborhoods to whites-only neighborhoods and redlining were perfectly legal in other places of the US. After a brief prologue to set the period tone, we meet young Garrett in 1954 Los Angeles, as he relocates from his native small town Texas with his wife Eunice (Nia Long) and young son, with an ambitious plan to become a real estate mogul. A math genius, Garrett picked up basics of finance and banking as a young boy, by listening to bankers while he shined shoes outside the town’s bank. Hoping to find some place more open to black entrepreneurs, Garrett is frustrated to find he can’t even get LA bankers talk to him, much less lend to a black man. Eventually, he forms a partnership with a white real estate owner Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney), an Irishman who has encountered prejudice himself, Barker serves as the public face for their real estate purchases, which makes it easier to get loans and buy property in whites-only areas.
When Barker suddenly dies, Garrett is left in a bind, and he turns to the brash Joe Morris for cash to restart. But as two black men looking to buy property in areas still legally restricted to whites-only, they need a white face to negotiate with would-be white sellers. They hatch a bold plan, to re-make Garrett’s working class handyman Matt (Hoult) into the kind of fellow that white bankers and upper-crust real estate moguls will see as one of their own.
This is the most fun part of THE BANKER, thanks largely to the talented cast. Reversing the familiar movie trope, Jackson’s born-rich Joe Morris teaches Hoult’s working-class Matt Steiner how to pass himself off as part of the bankers’ upper-class world, coaching his clueless charge to how to play golf like a pro, which fork to use in formal dining, and generally how to present himself as a social equal to the wealthy bankers. Meanwhile, Mackie’s Garrett launches the overwhelmed Matt on a crash course in finance and math skills, with equally comic results.
They form a partnership in which all three names appear as owners of the properties, although the sellers only ever see Matt. But as the brains and money behind this business, Morris and Garrett are the ones really running the business, and Matt is really more an employee than a full partner. To keep their front on track, Morris even dresses up to pose as a chauffeur, to listen in and provide help in a bind.
In the first half of the film, the caper film style works well and the film is entertaining, largely thanks to the efforts of Jackson, Hoult and Mackie. The heaviest dramatic acting load falls to Mackie, and his strong performance often lifts the film above its conventional trappings and grabs the audience’s heartstrings with a stirring, inspirational appeal.
The scheme proves wildly successful, making the partners lots money while racially integrating large areas of previously segregated LA. But when Garrett returns to his home town in Texas, he confronts the hardships that Jim Crow laws place on the black community. He is seized with the urge to do something for the community where he grows up, and he decides the best way to help is to buy the local bank, and make home loans to worthy black borrowers. However, the idea proves a hard-sell with Morris and Steiner, as it seems more about social activism than just making money – and it is.
THE BANKERS starts out strong with its winking caper film vibe, and there is a lot of fun as the three partners circumvent the racial restrictions of 1954. However, when the film shifts to more serious territory in the second half, as the partners take on buying a bank in a small town in 1963 Jim Crow Texas, the film’s playful caper film vibe has to give way. And it does, largely, but the change is not smooth and makes it feel like two different films. When the partners become embroiled with a Southern senator who wants to change banking rules for his own political advantage, things get really dicey. Further, returning to the caper film style near the film’s end feels particularly awkward.
THE BANKER has its flaws but deserves credit for presenting this untold true story of creative black entrepreneurs, and for the fine work of its talented cast. THE BANKER opens Friday, March 6, at the Chase Park Plaza Cinema.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars