Director – George Nolfi
Cast – Anthony Mackie, Samuel L Jackson, Nicholas Hoult, Nia Long
Two black men in segregated United States used legal chicanery, devilish intelligence and good old-fashioned deceit to do more to unite their country than most legislators. In the 1950s and 60s, Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris took it upon themselves to buy real estate in white-only neighbourhoods to sell it to black people, sneakily dismantling the unjust social order of the land.
The second Apple TV+ original film, The Banker, is easily more high-profile than the first, the rather delicate coming-of-age drama Hala. Featuring a fine cast led by Anthony Mackie and Samuel L Jackson, the film’s deceptively dispassionate title does it no favours, because The Banker is a refined entertainer that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Watch The Banker trailer here
It’s a solidly crafted movie, and even though it features two prominent Marvel Cinematic Universe alums, it’s exactly the sort of film that Martin Scorsese feels isn’t made anymore because of the dominance of superhero cinema. The industry has, curiously, witnessed somewhat of a resurgence of dramas such as The Banker, with films like Ford v Ferrari and Little Women doing so well at the box office.
But The Banker’s success won’t be gauged on the basis of how much money it makes. It will, instead, depend on how intensely the millions of people currently quarantined at home feel the need to watch it.
Some of those people might indeed be living in ghettos. They might have, at some point in their lives, faced discrimination because of their religion, their marital status, their sexual orientation, or one of the several other ways in which humans try and build barriers between each other. And this is what makes the story of Garrett and Morris all the more relevant, even today, even in a country like ours where landlords and cab drivers are known to profile certain people before entering into business with them.
To afford black people a shot at the American dream, the reticent Garrett (Mackie) and the flamboyant Morris (Jackson), concocted a plan that is just about unbelievable enough to be true. They set about buying banks filled with white people’s money, with the purpose of handing out that same money as loans to black people looking to climb the social ladder.
“We can’t set foot in a bank unless we’re the help,” Morris very rightly informs Garrett in one scene. And to address this problem, the duo come up with a plan that reminded me of Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, and, rather unexpectedly, Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla. They convince a white colleague, played by an endearing Nicholas Hoult, to pretend to be the face of their firm. As John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth famously said in BlackKklansman, “With the right white man, we can do anything.”
And so, like Bapu from Khosla Ka Ghosla, the young Max Steiner is put through the full My Fair Lady treatment, including lessons in maths and a crash course in golf. These are some of the film’s finest moments, and when the chemistry between its trio of lead actors shines the brightest.
It’s wonderful to see Mackie playing a character who in some manner probably contributed in creating a world in which a black actor could one day have the opportunity to play Captain America. Jackson, meanwhile, is just as committed to his role as he always is, almost single-handedly jangling the viewer’s enthusiasm in the story. There’s probably very little of the real Joe Morris in his performance — like most of his characters, Morris in the film is likely a version of the actor himself — but that’s sort of the beauty of Samuel L Jackson.
Director George Nolfi, who has worked with Mackie before, on the monumentally underrated sci-fi gem The Adjustment Bureau, treats the story with an Eastwood-esque straightforwardness that leaves a lot to be desired. On certain occasions, the film’s overly simplistic tone feels slightly off, considering the very real hardships that black Americans were facing (exclusively off-screen) at the time. There is no time for tragedy in The Banker’s romanticised world.
But then again, when you watch this Apple original on your Apple device, you’re probably not thinking about the sweatshop in which it was made.