“The Banker “ is an odd title for this film. It has the effect of underselling a fascinating story about a black business savant that was inspired by real events. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) became a real estate mogul in Los Angeles and (eventually) the owner of a bank in his Texas hometown at a time when all the cards were stacked against him. At the very least, “The Banker” doesn’t seem like the best way to describe Bernard, his accomplishments or even reflect what it’s is about: the de facto and legal ways that African American were excluded from fairly participating in real estate and business.
That’s all to say, don’t let it dissuade you from giving this solid film a chance when it hits AppleTV Plus on Friday. Directed by George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”), “The Banker” is a fairly traditional biopic with a civil rights bent and some caper elements. With lush period costuming and a terrific cast, including Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson as his business partner Joe Morris, Nia Long as Bernard’s wife Eunice and Nicholas Hoult, it might just be the perfect easy watch for anyone looking for fresh streaming content.
We’re introduced to Bernard as a precocious youngster living in 1930s Texas. He’s ambitious and self-taught and eavesdrops on the men whose shoes he’s shining to learn some business acumen. His father commends his intellect but advises him to dream smaller.
The film then cuts to 1954 Los Angeles where Bernard, always bedecked in a well-fitted suit, goes on the hunt for investment properties. “No” is a word he hears often, until he meets Patrick Barker, an Irish property owner played by Colm Meaney, who sees potential in Bernard’s strategy of buying properties in white neighborhoods that are adjacent to black neighborhoods and gives him a chance.
They start doing business together, but there’s a catch: Although Bernard has all the good ideas, he’s forced to stay in the shadows of every deal knowing that his skin color would be a deal-breaker for many in 1950s Los Angeles. When his partnership with Patrick comes to an end, he and Joe Morris have to essentially Eliza Doolittle a white working class youngster (Hoult’s Matt Steiner) — who barely knows how to add — to be the face of their real estate empire. Joe, Eunice and Bernard teach Matt sophistication in a particularly amusing section of the film: How to golf, how to eat shellfish, how to drink nice scotch and how to negotiate deals with captains of industry.
It’s invigorating at first watching Bernard and Joe play puppet master in order to buy the building that houses the bank Bernard couldn’t even get a meeting with. The plan works and they’re all getting rich. But their scheme starts to get away from them as Bernard’s ambitions grow and Matt pushes for some actual responsibility (thanks in no part to a one-dimensional gold-digging wife). Getting rich isn’t Bernard’s only goal after all: He also wants to affect change for black people in the United States. Unfortunately, he underestimates just how vindictive the establishment in Texas is when they find out that he’s the real owner of the bank.
The engine of the film slows to a half in these Texas scenes, perhaps because it decides to shift much of its focus to Matt and by that point, you’re merely watching everything that they’ve built crumble. By the time the credits roll, you feel like you never exactly got to know anything deeper than surface level about Bernard and Joe.
“The Banker” was supposed to come out in theaters at the end of last year, a late-game, long-shot awards hopeful, that was pulled when accusations of misconduct were levied against Bernard Garrett Jr., a producer on the film, by his half-sister. His name was removed from the credits, but two of Bernard Sr.’s wives who are not depicted in the film then took issue with the accuracy of the story and timeline. The filmmakers responded that the story is based on Garrett’s own audio recordings from 1955.
That truth might never come to light, but taken on its own, “The Banker” is a pleasant watch. And who wouldn’t benefit from a little Mackie and Jackson banter right now?
Rated PG-13 for “some strong language including a sexual reference and racial epithets and smoking throughout.” Two and a half stars out of four.