Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Director George Nolfi’s “The Banker” is an undeniably entertaining historical footnote. Still, it suffers from an exposition-heavy narrative about the ins and out of local financial institutions in the Civil Rights era America.
“The Banker” is based on the true story of Bernard Garrett and Joseph Morris, who became two of the first African Americans to own a bank in the 1960s. Their goal was to grant mortgages to African Americans, who might buy houses in white neighborhoods. And if you believe this movie, Garrett and Morris engaged in a bit of subterfuge to execute their plan.
Anthony Mackie plays Garrett. Mackie is the charismatic action star who inherited Captain America’s shield in “Avengers: Endgame.” But as he’s proven over and over in films like 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” and working with director Nolfi in 2011’s “The Adjustment Bureau,” Mackie is ready to lead a picture. As Garrett, he infuses his character with a simmering frustration. Garrett’s frustrated because he’s a black man in the 1960s gifted with an innate talent for numbers. While Garrett’s a long, tall, cool customer, there’s a man of math and substance underneath his intimidating physical presence.
Garrett reluctantly takes on the flashy California nightclub owner Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) as his partner. Morris is a consummate bachelor, a playboy, everything that Garrett has rejected. But to break into the Los Angeles real estate game, Garrett has to swallow his self-righteous pride and go into business with the flashy philanderer. Ironically, both men share a collective intellect, numbers in different types of businesses, but those numbers always add up to the same color: green.
After finding success in purchasing apartment and office buildings in California, Garrett sets his sights on expanding his empire and giving opportunities to people of color. He wants to go home to Texas and buy a local bank and change their business model. But Morris reminds him of the major stumbling block: it’s the 1960s, and they are black. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the two men employ a friendly white worker named Matt (Nicholas Hoult) to front for them.
And by schooling Matt, they can rise in the world of banking. But can they maintain the ruse?
“The Banker” is a witty story about a subject that is going to get a series long examination in HBO’s upcoming “Lovecraft Country.” Of course, that series will lean on science fiction elements, but at its core is the struggle of African Americans to integrate neighborhoods. Prejudice in financial institutions is a part of our past that is well ripe for cinematic examination.
I dug “The Banker,” but I recognize that it will try attention spans. A lot of time is spent talking about numbers and banking. And in the wake of movies like 2015’s Oscar-winning “The Big Short,” I suspect that viewer fatigue will set in with this old-fashioned approach to dry subject matter.
These days, if a movie seeks to educate its audience, it’s got to do so with exciting visuals, and in “The Banker” the stream of lingo gets tiresome. What it needed was some entertaining way to explain the scheme and the obstacles in pulling it off. This movie is similar to a heist film, but the grand theft plays out ever so slowly. The subtly won’t enchant mass viewers, even though Mackie and Jackson have a tremendous brotherly chemistry.
Despite some short-comings, “The Banker” is a great-looking film with the period setting captured well. And the patient viewer should find a lot to like about this worthy story.
Note: “The Banker” was shot in Newnan, Georgia. It makes excellent use of the downtown, the courthouse, and the old Carnegie Library (serving as a bank). The production was well-run, and locals met Samuel L. Jackson, who was giving of his time. Many productions, including the latest “Conjuring” sequel, have made Newnan their home, and it’s so special to see the town used prominently for such a socially relevant subject.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com