There’s a considerable amount of baggage arriving with the delayed release of The Banker, Apple’s first original movie, now landing online after a token two-week theatrical window. Primed for awards glory, or at the very least consideration, the fact-based drama was set to land in December, an ambitious last-minute slot for a film that cannily ticks a large number of Oscar-friendly boxes. But less than three weeks before it was due to open, a flashy world premiere was cancelled and soon after, so was the release.
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The film, based on the story of two black entrepreneurs who took on unjust white business practices in 1960s America, was mired in controversy when allegations of sexual abuse were levelled at the producer, who also happened to be the lead character’s son. His name has since been taken off the project but given how the claims were never directed at the two men at its centre, both now dead, it remains an unfair blot on a story that deserves to be remembered and celebrated, even if it’s been brought to us in imperfect packaging.
Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) grew up with ambitions that the world around him was constantly trying to flatten. As a black teenager growing up in late-1930s Texas, he was made aware that expectations and opportunities were limited but refused to accept the idea that his life would be one of servitude. In the 50s, he made a move into the world of Los Angeles real estate and found a way of sneaking past the systemic hurdles in his way with the help of a business partner, Joe Morris (Samuel L Jackson). The pair used a white frontman, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), to help secure them deals they would otherwise be denied access to, a nifty con scheme that led them all into a surprising, high-stakes game.
As Hollywood continues to gradually fill in the many, many gaps left by the largely white-centric view of history film-makers have previously reconstructed, it remains a pleasure to see little-known stories such as this brought to life. Too often, black characters have been relegated to period films that position them as subservient, trapped playing maids and slaves, but in The Banker, we see businessmen with agency and drive. Garrett and Morris worked hard not just to better their own lives but ultimately the lives of others through buying up banks that would provide affordable loans to people of colour and apartments that were rented out to those who were discriminated against by white landlords. It’s a story that expands with every development yet ironically, one that works best when the focus is more, well, focused.
The Banker works best in its snappily paced, magnetically involving first act as we’re drawn into Garrett’s mission, thanks in large part to Mackie, an actor who always feels strangely under the radar despite his movie star charisma and impressive versatility. He makes for a believable everyman who chooses to restrain his anger when faced with daily micro-aggressions, a strategy that Jackson’s more flamboyant counterpart finds confounding. They’re a charming double-act and the early scenes of them trying to prepare Hoult’s clueless foil for business are supremely entertaining.
But while director George Nolfi ensures that his film at least looks handsome to the very end, slickly recreating 60s LA, he stumbles to keep his story one that’s worth investing in as the script gets bogged down by the minutiae of banking and of the legalese attached to the plans constructed by the pair. What was once sparkling and tight starts to feel dull and it’s left to Mackie and Jackson to do the majority of the legwork. The facts of the case help to pull us back by the end as we’re taught about the major strides made and the impact their work had for black people at large but a potentially great, if safely made, film then ends up as a solid one instead. Inspiring until the end if not entirely entertaining.