“The Banker” is a sturdy, entertaining period piece about a little known episode in civil rights history, an effort to open the door to “The American Dream” by a couple of real estate tycoons who took over two banks.
The tycoons? Black men who made their fortunes in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s. The film follows their struggles to get their businesses up and thriving in racist 1950s LA. And it climaxes with the problems that spun out of their efforts to get into banking in 1960s Texas, of all places.
The movie is framed within a 1960s Senate hearing over that attempt.
Anthony Mackie plays Bernard Garrett, a “genius” fascinated by the mathematics of “How to get rich in real estate,” practically from birth. We see the teenage Bernard listening to all the business men’s conversations as they’re carried on in 1930s Willis, Texas, and he’s shining their shoes.
By the 1950s, he’s sold one business, married (Nia Long plays wife Eunice), had a little boy and moved them to the greener, supposedly more tolerant pastures of California.
Bernard scouts rental complexes, ignores the overt racism and the half-whispered comments about his suits — “pretty fancy for a colored guy.” He is rebuffed, blown off by bankers, not taken seriously by his first big seller (Colm Meaney). And he’s loathe to accept help from a nightclub owner, Joe Morris, his wife used to know and who remains entirely too flirtatious with her, even now.
But Morris is a hard guy to avoid, and impossible not to like. He is played by Samuel L. Jackson with all the bemused, brassy and profane bravado the man can muster.
“I don’t trust white people,” Joe counsels. “Truth be told, I don’t even trust black people.” But he’s intrigued by what Garrett isn’t letting anybody see in his eagerness to accumulate properties and build a real estate empire — “the thrill of STICKING IT to the man!”
All they need is somebody to “front” for the business, when officialdom, finance or racist customers present a problem. That’s how they turn failed businessman turned laborer Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) into the face of their partnership.
The movie’s lighter moments are the crash-course montage of Bernard drilling Matt on real-estate math by night as Joe gives him “keep your effing HEAD DOWN” lessons on the golf course, which is where a lot of business connections are to be made.
Any time there’s a big meeting, a “silent partners” purchase that Matt has to bluff his way through, Joe dresses up as his chauffeur to listen in, oversee and maybe provide a little silent coaching. Bernard starts off too dignified to do that, but finds himself in custodian clothes, his wife dressed as a maid, just to make these deals happen.
The pleasures “The Banker” are the easy rapport of the cast and underdog tale the film tells. Equal rights, equal rights to housing and equal access to capital (loans) were all years away when these two crunched the numbers and made the deals, behind the scenes, that pointed towards change.
Mackie’s Garrett keeps his cool at every hassle from the cops, every racist renter who lights into him, and takes pains to dress the part every time he’s got to meet and negotiate with “the man.” Jackson’s Morris is the older, cynical pragmatist, who isn’t the man you say “You wouldn’t understand” to.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I not wake up BLACK this morning?”
Veteran screenwriter (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Adjustment Bureau”) turned director and co-writer George Nolfi doesn’t dazzle us with technique, flash or pace, here. It’s a straight-forward tale given a period gloss but pedestrian pacing, thanks to a script a lot of hands typed out.
“The Banker” was being pitched as Apple’s bid for Oscar consideration last fall, which seems an over-reach. That doesn’t taint it, nor does the knowledge that the given reason it was pulled, sexual abuse allegations about Garrett’s son, who signed on as a producer on the movie.
It’s an earnest film graced with surprising glimpses of humanity amid persistent racist venality. The great value is in showing us a piece of history we don’t know but should, and as a terrific showcase for Mackie, Jackson, Long and Hoult.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 on appeal for some strong language including a sexual reference and racial epithets, and smoking throughout
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Nicholas Hoult, Nia Long, Colm Meaney and Samuel L. Jackson.
Credits: Directed by George Nolfi, script by Niceole R. Levy, Stan Younger, David Lewis Smith, and George Nolfi. An Apple TV release
Running time: 2:01