THE BANKER movie poster | ©2020 Apple TV+

THE BANKER movie poster | ©2020 Apple TV+

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicholas Hoult, Nia Long, Jessie T. Usher, Colm Meaney, Scott Johnson
Writers: Niceole R. Levy & George Nolfi and David Lewis Smith & Stan Younger, story by Brad Kane and David Lewis Smith & Stan Younger
Director: George Nolfi
Distributor: Apple TV+
Release Date: March 6, 2020 (theatrical); March 20, 2020 (Apple TV+)

THE BANKER is based on the real-life story of Bernard S. Garrett (played here by Anthony Mackie) and Joseph B. Morris (Samuel L. Jackson). The two men joined forces to become real estate magnates and eventually bankers in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when it was uncommon for black people to own businesses, especially in previously whites-only areas. In order to complete transactions with largely racist white businessmen, Garrett and Morris hired a white man, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), to be the physical face of their company.

This is a pretty astounding piece of history. We get a sense that writers Niceole R. Levy & George Nolfi and David Lewis Smith and Stan Younger, based on a story by Brad Kane and Smith & Younger, are playing a little loose with the facts (for one thing, Garrett was really from Inglewood, California, not small-town Texas) to amp up the drama and get their points across. They are also fond of on-the-nose dialogue. However, THE BANKER eventually gains power as it goes, until we are caught up in the complexity and danger and daring of it all.

The film, directed by co-screenwriter Nolfi, begins with Garrett having to appear in court in 1965 Washington, D.C. In then flashes back to Bernard’s childhood in Texas, when he’s taking notes on what the white businessmen say to each other at his shoeshine stand.

By 1954, Garrett has grown up to be a very smart, tightly-wound man, determined to move to Los Angeles with loyal wife Eunice (Nia Long) and son Bernard Jr. at his side. Garrett has a plan to buy up property in previously white-only neighborhoods so that black people will be able to afford to rent or buy decent housing. After some initial reluctance, Garrett partners with the more expansive, less genteel nightclub owner Morris as an investor. Since bank loan officers refuse to meet with black people, Garrett first decides to buy a building that is full of bank offices, and then comes up with the idea of paying amiable white handyman Matt to take meetings for him and Morris. Because Matt will have to pose as someone from the moneyed class who knows all about finance, a fair amount of what could be called “My Fair Laddie” training is in order.

Up through here, THE BANKER is well-acted, but overly earnest, almost as though it was made in the era of its events. But then Matt decides to branch out to small-town Texas, where racism is a lot more overt than in Los Angeles. At the same time, there’s some changing in personal dynamics. As it enters its third act, THE BANKER gains traction and becomes the movie it seems to have been trying to be from the start. Legal and even physical peril heightens, and even the most math-averse viewers will start trying to calculate, along with Matt, trying to see whether mistakes were made, or if something more sinister is happening.

There isn’t any concern that the audience may not get the point, with multiple characters stating that most white people actively didn’t want black people to own their own homes and businesses, never mind possibly being landlords. Long, who heroically makes the most of her underwritten supportive wife role, even gets to bluntly make the case that her husband (among others) is so concerned with racism that he’s blind to his own sexism. The point is definitely welcome, even if the lines seem bumper-sticker-ready.

Mackie has gravitas, Jackson is in total cool mode, and Hoult is persuasive as a well-intentioned guy who finds he has a talent for social role-playing.

THE BANKER gets off to a mundane start, but it becomes progressively involving as it proceeds. By the end, it can be said to qualify as an actual legal thriller.

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