'The Banker': Film Review

Elusive history vividly rendered.
3/6/2020

Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie and Nicholas Hoult star in George Nolfi's fact-based film about a pair of black businessmen in the 1950s.

Not only do banking and real estate not even represent a small subgenre in movies, but the people involved in these mighty businesses hardly ever pop up as major characters in films at all because, well, what they do seems too boring and provides distinctly limited visual possibilities. However, someone’s finally found a way to make the subject not only interesting, but funny, historically fascinating and culturally relevant. 

George Nolfi's The Banker is specifically the story of a clever real-life con job that morphs into a compelling look at the grim history of racial discrimination as examined through the housing market. This is in large measure due to a smart, if also, by necessity, exposition-heavy script and madly entertaining performances by Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicholas Hoult. (The Apple TV+ original production was initially slated to premiere Nov. 20 at the AFI Fest before a December opening. But one day before the premiere, the tech giant pulled the film from the event and delayed its theatrical release amid sexual abuse claims leveled against the real-life subject's son, Bernard Garrett Jr., who was originally credited as a co-producer. Garrett Jr. has denied the claims.)

One famous film that memorably dealt with real estate shenanigans is Chinatown, but that simply provided the backdrop for what the characters did in the foreground. Fat-cat property tycoons have certainly popped up in plenty of films over the years, but The Banker places its entrepreneurs front and center in a way you’ve never seen them before: Bernard Garrett is black, young, financially shrewd and eventually helps hatch a clever plan to maneuver through the obstacles to African American entrepreneurial success that existed in the 1950s.

The Banker doesn’t win you over immediately. A 1939 North Texas-set prologue exists for the sole reason of showing a young black student being reprimanded for spying on whites to learn about business and math. “You were born the wrong color,” he’s admonished. Jump ahead 15 years to Los Angeles, where Bernard Garrett Jr. (Mackie) is married with a kid and remains obsessed with numbers. “My husband is a genius,” Bernard’s wife, Eunice (Nia Long), tells anyone who will listen, and upon first impression he comes across like a humorless nerd, stiff and fastidiously dressed.

Certainly Bernard is a stick of wood compared to the man with whom he’ll soon partner in a novel adventure in real estate. Joe Morris (Jackson), whom Bernard meets at the Plantation Club (a onetime real place, at 108th and Central), is a life-loving extrovert, the owner of 17 commercial buildings, and as loose and funny as Bernard is uptight and serious. “He’s a damn degenerate,” Bernard is warned, but Joe appreciates the younger man’s ambition and purposefulness. “I like seeing black men succeed,” Joe avers, and they eventually embark upon a partnership.

From a race perspective, L.A. may not have been Texas, but it remained segregated. All the historical details, big and small, are as fascinating as they are dismaying, as they relate to where blacks could live, issues of renting versus owning and the attitudes of ordinary people. Joe knows the score as well as anyone, but he has fun with it, too, as it makes his life more interesting. “I don’t trust white people,” he admits to Bernard, while adding, “I don’t trust black people either.”

It takes a while to get there, but the film’s story finally announces itself: Bernard has been doing well fixing up rental properties, but racial barriers prevent him from buying and selling single family homes in white neighborhoods. Re-enter Joe, who proposes using Bernard’s white and terribly handsome young construction worker Matt Steiner (Hoult) as a frontman for their buying and selling.

In a vastly amusing extended scene, Joe takes Bernard and Matt to teach the latter how to play golf. He impresses upon the working-class kid that the golf course is where white people do business, so the outings serve both as golf lessons and an extended briefing on the math of real estate. Matt’s got to master both, and the irony is not lost on the mirthful Joe that here he is on the links playing the white man’s game and instructing Matt “how to talk to white people.”

At this point the script, one initiated some 20 years ago and now attributed to Nicole Levy, Nolfi, David Lewis Smith and Stan Younger, finally shifts out of first gear. Amazingly, Matt proves smooth enough to convincingly speak with potential buyers and veteran real estate guys; Joe has tutored him well. The latter also dons a chauffeur’s uniform so he can accompany Matt to his meetings and provide guidance when needed, which he really doesn’t — Matt’s a natural math wizard. After all the doubts and adversity, the guys’ success fosters a giddy pleasure; they even buy a big downtown building. 

Alas, the story is not one of happy-ever-after. Against all reason, Bernard becomes determined to return to Texas to replicate their success in his home state and sets his sights on taking over the Mainland Bank in Willis, where confederate flags fly high and drinking fountains are segregated. Joe thinks it’s a terrible idea but goes along with it, playing the chauffeur, while Matt’s smooth talking is no match for the down-and-dirty local boys who are not well disposed to outsiders, especially if they're black, muscling in on their home turf. 

For a time, dropping the men’s financial schemes into the deep South provides a novel oblique angle on the 1960s civil rights movement. But then it all gets even more complicated and, in the end, sobering.

Still, despite the recognizably daunting challenges in telling this long-arc story in an entirely coherent way, The Banker spins a surprising and engaging yarn pinned to central elements that made it hard to tell. Its lively, positive spirit helps it over any number of speed bumps, the social backdrops play to its advantage and the topline castmembers pull their weight and then some. Mackie quietly excels in revealing Bernard as a tight, ultra-smart, cautious and ambitious man who evolves into a fully dimensional figure of strengths and weaknesses. Hoult proves up to the task of embodying a game young guy who reveals his limits by soaring too close to the sun. Simply put, Jackson has a field day, making every good line he has even better and dispensing attitude that’s at once hilarious and thoughtful. Long registers well in the limited role of Bernard’s sharp wife.

Catching passing glimpses of assorted mid-century L.A. neighborhoods provides quick bursts of visual pleasure, and fine contributions are delivered by production designer John Collins, costume designer Aieisha Li and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen.

Production companies: Romulus Entertainment, Iam21 Entertainment
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicholas Hoult, Nia Long, Jessie T. Usher, Colm Meaney, Michael Harney
Director: George Nolfi
Screenwriters: Nicole Levy, George Nolfi, David Lewis Smith, Stan Younger, story by David Lewis Smith, Stan Younger, Brad Caleb Kane
Producers: Joel Viertel, Brad Feinstein, George Nolfi, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jonathan Baker, David Lewis Smith, Anthony Mackie
Executive producers: Joseph F. Ingrassia, Samuel L. Jackson, Will Greenfield, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: John Collins
Costume designer: Aieisha Li
Editor: Joel Viertel
Music: H. Scott Salinas
Casting: Kim Coleman

Rated PG-13, 128 minutes
Premieres: Friday in theaters and March 20 on Apple TV+