After an abbreviated theatrical run, audiences can now stream the new Apple TV+ release The Banker from George Nolfi, writer-director of The Adjustment Bureau.
The film tells the story of Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), a seemingly classic odd-couple in that Garrett was an upstanding black man in the 1960s who believed financial genius and a solid work ethic along with a stubborn adherence to the notion of an innate meritocracy in capitalism would result in success, while Morris held onto a deep and abiding mistrust of everyone, particularly white people, which allowed him to forge a small empire within the black community in Los Angeles rooted in supper clubs and real estate. From their first meeting, arranged by Garrett’s wife Eunice (Nic Long) who worked for Morris in the past, tension reared its head, but the two men were perfectly suited to take on the system through a blending of their agendas and tactics.
At its heart, The Banker details the slow-building of a revolutionary perspective in both men. Garrett’s by-the-book instincts and barely-contained rage at the system hint at Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violent approach of holding up a mirror to the mainstream, laying bare the ethical and moral deficiencies of its practices with the hope of inspiring change. Morris, on the other hand, recognized that the white power structure was never going to release control to a couple of black men, so it was up to each person to acquire whatever they could for themselves, by any means necessary. Jackson especially captures the hustler in Morris who never got caught up in the Nation of Islam’s religiosity like Malcolm X.
Garrett attempts to do the right thing (or as right as the system will allow), working with Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney), a white businessman willing to provide the face for Garrett’s real estate dealings and development plans, while earning a percentage of the gains and having his name attached to the deeds and paperwork. When Barker dies unexpectedly, Garrett is forced to figure out a new arrangement and fast, drawing him back to Morris.
Since no bank will grant Garrett a loan (or literally a meeting in their offices), the financial wizard seize upon the idea of buying the building out from under a major bank and several other businesses. To do so, the pair realize they need a white front man to execute their plan. They settle on Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a working class handyman they can mold into the perfect beast – the merger of their smarts and hustle, and his own inherent white privilege.
It is not enough though to stick it to The Man by buying the bank building, at least not for Garrett. The native Texan who headed west with dreams of opportunities and a better life guiding him decides its time to head back home to change things there. He convinces Morris and Steiner to go along with him, leading him down a far more revolutionary path than he ever considered.
The fact that he’s able to talk Morris into joining him speaks to the fiery rage in both men. There’s a desire to beat The Man at his own game, to prove their self-worth and fight historic injustice and discrimination, and the film reminds us, in its slickly efficient way that truth can be stranger than fiction.
The Banker does its level-best to not come across as a buddy-heist film full of jokes and slight sleight-of-hand. When Garrett, Eunice, and Morris work to coach Steiner on the finer aspects of finance, etiquette and golf, the lessons have a sneaky bit of social commentary injected into the frames. Watching these black folks teach a white man how to be a better (or more successful) white man highlights the old adage that black folks have always been far more aware of the ways of white folks. The film occasionally nods in the direction of the irony of the situation, but it is smart enough to not push for the obvious punch line.
It is worth noting too that the film, as most stories based on real-life people and situations, plays fast and loose with the details. To be clear though, creative license does not mean that what’s being presented is fake news. The ring of truth may sound louder to certain audiences than others, but the tone lingers and should resonant in hearts and minds, thanks in no small part to the snappy pairing of Mackie and Jackson.
Mackie, playing the straight man, has the right amount of uptight righteousness mixed with a devilish twinkle in his eye and the hint of a smile that lets you know Garrett surely had to enjoy pulling off these scams. The thrill was in knowing that he wasn’t cheating the game (he had the knowledge and worked harder than anyone else); instead he was exploiting the rules in the same way white men always did and applauded themselves for, calling it ingenuity and self-determination.
The film even lets us see Garrett’s outrage when Steiner attempts to go off on his own, without Garrett’s support and the plan falls apart. His whiteness only gets him so far – yet its far enough to keep him from suffering the same long-term consequences (jail time) as Garrett and Morris when things go awry.
The real pleasure here comes from Jackson, who gets to be the shoot from the hip, smooth-talker with the dark smirk that seems so close to Jackson’s perceived persona. Was Morris a character for Jackson or merely an extension of his quippy commercial facade? I’m not sure it matters because Jackson convinces us that Morris’s approach to life is still valid and relevant today. The cynic in me believes that trust can’t be earned due to such long-standing underhanded dealings. Laws may change. Times may change. But people, at the end of the day, are going to be out for themselves. If you know that, then you have the chance to be ahead of the game. Jackson has made a career out of this awareness.
He and Mackie take that to the bank. (The Banker premieres on Apple TV+ on March 20th.)