Synopsis – In the 1960s two African-American entrepreneurs hire a working-class white man to pretend to be the head of their business empire while they pose as a janitor and chauffeur.
My Take – While Apple‘s streaming service, Apple TV+, has started off to a fairly good start thanks to a bunch of star studded TV shows it released last year, all varying in genres, their first prestige drama, which was supposed to have a late-2019 theatrical release in order for it to qualify for awards season consideration, found them embroiled in some serious controversy.
As about 24 hours before the film was meant to debut at the closing night premiere of the 2019 AFI Film Festival, Bernard Garrett Jr., a credited producer and the son of the man who inspired the film, found himself accused of sexual abuse by his half-sister. Which led to an abrupt cancelling of its premiere, scuttling of its theatrical release, hereby pushing it out of the awards season. Then, in January, two different ex-wives of the elder Garrett made a public request of Apple to not release the film.
Though it was eventually re-scheduled for a two-week theatrical release beginning on March 6, to be followed by a March 20 streaming release, with Garrett Jr. removed from the credits and from profit participation, but with major cinemas closing down all over the world due to the rise in coronavirus pandemic, the film discontinued its run and has now landed on the streamer.
Nevertheless, despite the baggage it carries, I found myself enjoying this likable but fluffy and formulaic film about racial politics in the ’60s. Though the film itself is pretty conventional film-making, and not everything about it works, but thanks to the three strong performances at its heart, the film often is entertaining.
Along with its nice production values, and an appealing mid-’50s to early ’60s period visual style with plenty of gorgeous costumes and cool cars to ogle at, this film might just be the perfect easy watch for anyone looking for fresh streaming content.
Inspired by true events, the story follows Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie), an African American real-life entrepreneur, who grew in 1940s Texas and learned finance secretly while performing his shoe shinning duties for white men outside financial institutes. By the 1960s, he moves to Los Angeles with his wife Eunice (Nia Long) and young son, with a plan sketched out to conquer the real estate market.
Finding his first success by performing a handshake deal to buy property from Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney), an Irish landlord, who empathizes with the discrimination Garrett faces in white LA as someone who’s seen his fair share. But when Barker passes away, his wife is unwilling to continue their partnership, going as far as to hiring his accountant’s services.
Garrett is so enraged by the situation that he turns to getting help from his wife’s friend, Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), a loud jazz club owner and one of the few rich black men in the country, despite their non-aligning principles.
His plan is simple, Garrett wants Morris to partner up with him to make some heavy duty real estate purchases in Los Angeles. But as they’ll never be able to conduct business in the open, he hires Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a white uneducated failed businessman friend of his cousin, Tony Jackson (Jessie T. Usher), to act as the face of their company. While, Morris and Garrett pose as a chauffeur and janitor in order to see everything play out. That is until when they move their risky operation towards banks, they finds them receiving the attention of the federal government.
Directed by George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau), who here is working on a script from five credited writers, is mostly entertaining, fun and inspirational, with a classic underdog story and a winking caper film approach as the three partners circumvent the racial restrictions of 1954.
Particularly enjoyable are the scenes of the two black men tutoring their utterly vanilla partner, Matt, on how to be rich white. While Garrett instructs the dupe on the intricacies of algebraic equations and how they relate to cost vs. square footage, Morris, teaches him the combined fineness of schmoozing and golf, with Eunice contributing to his table manners. Add to that a sepia-toned visual style and loads of period details, it has plenty of popcorn film appeal.
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.
Another issue I found with the film was its lead character itself. While Anthony Mackie is more than capable as a lead, but his character Bernard seems is a bit too aloof a character throughout much of the film. His monotonic dialogue and bland persona was a disappointment. I’m not sure if the real character’s personality was like that, but he sure could’ve used some skip in his step. It also is hard to get through the scenes centering on his relationship with his wife and son if you’ve followed the scandal.
On the other hand, Samuel L. Jackson, as always, nailed his character. He was perfect for this role, and made this film that much more entertaining. Nicholas Hoult continues to be an undervalued actor, and once again provides an immense display of talent here.
Nia Long once again delivers a lively and lovable performance. In supporting roles, Colm Meaney, Jessie T. Usher and Scott Daniel Johnson also do well. On the whole, ‘The Banker’ is an often likable and briskly engaging drama buoyed by its strong performances.
Directed – George Nolfi
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 120 minutes