With new streaming services there must come new content, and so it is that Apple TV+ has produced “The Banker,” a biographical film about Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris, two black real estate developers who, when obstructed by racist banks, used cleverness and guile to purchase the banks’ own buildings in the 1960s.
It’s the kind of act of rebellion that makes for an excellent story and, potentially, an excellent film. Garrett and Morris used wit, duplicity and even elaborate costumes to strike a blow against institutionalized racism while becoming, themselves, powerful and successful and wealthy men. It should be easy to connect with their underdog story, to enjoy their righteous con jobs, and to stick by their side when the scheme comes crashing down.
Unfortunately, “The Banker” is the kind of biopic that takes serious issues of race and tries to make them palatable, whether or not it feels genuine. The film relies on tried-and-true, formulaic storytelling beats like training montages, impassioned speeches and, for extended and frustrating periods, focusing on the white guy Garrett and Morris used as their representative in meetings with racist bigwigs.
“The Banker” seems to be actively striving to be inoffensive, which undermines the genuine offenses men were fighting against, and which made their story worth telling in the first place.
Anthony Mackie stars as Garrett, whose father taught him to curb his ambitions of working in finance; nevertheless, he has moved to California with his wife Eunice (Nia Long) with the intention of buying up local apartment complexes, renovating them, integrating them and making his fortune. He’s saved up money, but to seal the deal he needs a loan, and he’s stymied at nearly every turn.
It’s Eunice who suggests Garrett go into business with Morris, played by Samuel L. Jackson, but Morris — though rich and successful and the owner of profitable properties — is an unapologetic lout. Garrett, a stick in the mud if ever a movie saw one, takes an instant disliking to Morris’s boorish, scene-stealing ways and refuses the opportunity until fate steps in and an alliance becomes absolutely necessary.
Garrett comes up with the revolutionary idea to acquire his own bank by buying the building that houses it, but in order to get in the room and have their offer taken seriously, they need a white front man. Enter the affable but naive Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), who worked for Garrett renovating apartment complexes and now has to take a crash course in banking, etiquette and even golf in order to impress high-society types and pass as one of them.
In order to keep an eye on Steiner, and feed him information when necessary, Morris and Garrett and even Eunice are forced to dress up as chauffeurs and janitors so they can stay in his orbit, which Morris finds playfully ironic, Eunice endures with dignity, and Garrett hates with every fiber of his being.
For a brief but somehow incredibly long time, “The Banker” becomes a microcosmic version of “My Fair Lady,” with Garrett and Morris teaching a well-intentioned bumpkin how to be even whiter, in order to achieve their own ends. The irony is never entirely lost, but it does get obfuscated by just how contrived and long this montage becomes. What’s worse, once Steiner takes center stage, he refuses to leave it for long periods, and starts demanding — politely, because he feels like he’s earned it — an opportunity to make banking decisions for himself, and even to run his own bank.
The best part of “The Banker,” besides Jackson’s welcome and rousing performance (since the prolific actor looks like he’s enjoying this role more than most of his others, lately) is the film’s canny understanding that Steiner, for all his screen time and well-articulated loyalty and clearly good intentions, cannot ever be trusted. It’s Morris who states, clearly and for the record, that he can never put his faith in any white person because they have racism as their safety net. The temptation to throw Garrett and Morris under the bus, because the law would be more eager to punish black scapegoats, is too strong for anyone to resist.
So when Garrett and Morris get ambitious, and secretly purchase a bank in Garrett’s home town in order to offer loans to black communities, once again using Steiner as their point man, that’s where the scheme begins to unravel. Steiner just isn’t all that smart, and Hoult does an admirable job of playing a person who’s been trained to act intelligent but doesn’t have actual wisdom and experience to back it up. And the temptation to save himself, at the expense of his friends and co-conspirators, may be too powerful to resist.
It’s all very competent, but competence isn’t very powerful. In a film like “The Banker,” where serious matters are treated like formulaic plot points and dramatic concessions are made to amplify the white experience in a story about racism in the 1960s, competence is a half-measure. The cast uniformly does their job, and the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (“A Quiet Place”) bathes the era in sun-dappled earth tones, evoking sepia without going nuts with it.
In the end, the story is told, and it’s told in such a way that we get the gist of it, and know where the injustice was, and why we should be angry, and why these men are the financial Robin Hoods of their day.
But although it’s been produced for Apple TV+, this PG-13 biopic feels so very safe that it could have been produced by Disney. And that’s doing the real-life story a disservice. “The Banker” is a story of political activism by way of financial manipulation, and it’s spurred forward by overwhelming offense, by racism, by righteous and justified anger.
Mackie does a decent job of articulating his anger, and the filmmakers clearly care about the issues, but “The Banker” doesn’t take the narrative risks necessary to tell its story powerfully. Competence is all we get instead, and competence isn’t quite enough.