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  • Mitch Blatt

The Banker: a Bank Heist for Social Justice

Inspired by true events and with a caper flair straight out of Argoor Now You See Me, George Nolfi’s 2020 film The Banker tells the story of two Black entrepreneurs who pay a White man to be the face of their banking group so that they can buy banks and give loans to help Black people get homes and businessesin White neighborhoods. Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson star as Bernard Garrett and Joseph Morris, with Nicholas Hoult as their frontman Matt Steiner. It’s a pretty interesting package, but what summary does the “top sheet” give? Does this movie make drafts (good) or deposits (bad)? Let’s run the numbers and find out!


TOP SHEET

In 1965 Washington DC, Bernard is called into a courtroom to testify. During his childhood in 1939 Willis, Texas, he had worked as a shoe shiner, eavesdropping on White businessmen to learn how they make money. His dad told him that “Negro man can’t earn money with this [Bernard’s handwritten business notes & formulas]. White man won’t let him, no matter how good at it you are.”

Bernard’s response? “Maybe not in Texas.”

The film cuts to 1954 Los Angeles. Bernard is all but forced to endure several instances of casual racism while trying to buy an apartment building. However, his White friend Matt Steiner, when asked how he feels about working for a Black man as a fellow renovator, says “Well, your money is green. That’s the only concern about color I got.”

Though at first reluctant, Bernard partners with club owner Joe Morris to buy the Bankers Building and become landlords for several banks. The plan is to eventually buy real estate in White-only neighborhoods, starting with Matt acting as the face of Bernard & Joe’s partnership. Matt tells his old friend Susie (Taylor Black) that he’s getting into a real estate investment partnership. Bernard & Joe teach him the math of investment and how to act like a rich investor. They plan out having Matt buy the Bankers Building from owner Charles Renault (Bill Kelly), with music and cinematography reminiscent of a bank heist movie likening the trio to a crew planning a caper. They become the Banker Building’s landlords and sell plenty of houses in White neighborhoods to Black buyers.

Cut to 1963. We see that Bernard’s hometown stands in contrast to Los Angeles—segregation and Jim Crow are in full swing. Bernard wants to buy Willis’ Mainland Bank to do good for the Black Willis residents. They have to stay on the down-low because of racism, but Matt’s subordinate Robert Florance Jr. (Scott Daniel Johnson) eventually finds out the truth and implicitly threatens to expose them to the people of Willis. Matt suggests buying another bank, the First National Bank of Marlin, and moving the Black loans there before Mainland’s inspection by the Comptroller of the Currency. Bernard says they’ll be spreading too thin,

but Matt volunteers to run Marlin. Florance sabotages that plan, and Matt unknowingly commits fraud by having Mainland pay “face value” for Marlin’s marked-down loans. The Treasury department revokes Mainland’s banking license, and the FBI arrests Joe and Bernard. Their attorney says they can use Senator McClellan’s (James Dumont) hearings on federally-funded banks to get their charges dropped. Matt testifies that everything he did was on Bernard & Joe’s orders. In a separate trial, Bernard says that contrary to the Constitution, people aren’t being treated equally—inability to get a loan means that Black people are “excluded from the American Dream.”

Set to somber piano, text says that Bernard and Joe lost their trial and were sentenced to three years in federal prison for “misappropriation of bank funds.” However, there’s good news: their caper to buy out banks and purchase homes in formerly White-only neighborhoods was “instrumental in the fight against housing segregation” in LA, and Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 three years after the trial.


DEPOSITS

The score was good, with fitting pieces for specific emotional moments (like the real estate montages, the “planning the Renault meeting” scene, and the walk through Willis). I liked that the film took some time to talk about anti-Irish discrimination; I feel like that’s not something you find a lot in movies, nor is the classism of Matt having to feign upper-class status. It was a nice change of pace to see a film about racism explore casual racism instead of overt racism (and also institutional racism instead of individual racism) and not be “just another film about segregation.” At one point, Susie tells Matt that Bernard and Joe “can’t” be smarter than him (intended as a compliment towards Matt). There’s a point where Barnard and his wife Eunice are talking about anti-Black racism, and Eunice gets mad at him for insulting her womanhood the same casual way people have insulted his Blackness—“I love you, Bernard, but how is that any different from a White man telling you you shouldn’t mind some daily assault on your dignity because you’re Black?”—showing that he’s not a perfect character, he has flaws, too. I liked how young Bernard was caught eavesdropping by a Black man rather than a White man - it sort of shows that antagonism in the film isn’t divided along racial lines. The story’s more nuanced than “Black underdogs vs White oppressors,” even though that’s basically the core conflict.


DRAFTS

I feel like the film dragged at times. Susie and Florance were pretty bland as characters, even though Black and Johnson were good in the roles given. The positive twist to the ending came out of nowhere for me; it wasn’t really foreshadowed.


OVERALL

I give The Banker 4/5 for the story (I liked the true-but-dramatized aspect of “having a White guy be the face for two disadvantaged Black guys”, but the happy ending seemed tacked on), 5/5 for the character dynamics (Mackie, Jackson and Hoult seemed to play well off each other), and 5/5 for the interplay between style and substance (the “heist/caper” vibe isn’t just a fun stylistic choice, it enhances the core social commentary on redlining and racism in finance). If you’re looking for a historical drama where positive role models take a nonviolent stand against injustice, you should definitely check out The Banker.

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