The kind of light and hokey biopic that a “cool” substitute teacher might show to a semi-interested AP history class, “The Banker” tells the little-known story of Bernard Garrett, a brilliant and enterprising black man who broke through two of America’s most racist industries by hiring a white handyman to play the face of his business. Considered in that context, it’s “BlackKklansman” for math nerds, but absent the shit-stirring righteousness that made Spike Lee’s film so much fun.
On the contrary, this wooden tale of socioeconomic privilege is as stiff and disjointed as a middle school play, with every line of over-enunciated dialogue pitched to the rafters so that all of the parents can hear it (save for a third act so full of banking jargon you’d need an MBA to make sense of it all). Even if the Apple TV+ drama hadn’t been postponed due to credible allegations of sexual abuse and wanton revisionism, it would still reek of inauthenticity. Garrett’s victories are too convenient, his setbacks too compressed; the struggle is real, but here it seems like make believe.
And yet, the film’s most glaring weakness is also the source of its most enduring strength, as the artificiality of it all sometimes helps “The Banker” to subvert the performative nature of race in this country. Director George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) wrote the ingenious post-modern sequel “Ocean’s Twelve,” and his latest effort is never better than when it functions as a kind of crime-free real estate caper, with the hero (Anthony Mackie) and his sly hustler of a business partner (Samuel L. Jackson) grooming their lower-status accomplice (Nicholas Hoult) for the role he was born to play: A handsome white man. At the same time, Garrett and Joe Morris are forced to disguise themselves as a janitor and chauffeur in order to Cyrano de Bergerac their caucasian employee whenever his own wits fail him. Sometimes the only way to beat the system is to fool it into thinking that you’re not.
Save for a corny prologue that takes us back to Garrett’s childhood in small-town Texas circa 1939 (the little boy works as a shoe-shiner for white bankers, writes down everything they say, and then scampers home for a dinner scene with big “Walk Hard” energy), “The Banker” begins in the early ’60s, as Garrett and his wife Eunice (Nia Long) arrive in Los Angeles and immediately start buying up property with an eye toward moving black people into white neighborhoods. Mackie plays Garrett as a cold man with a spark in his eyes — he generally seems determined to be as distant as possible — forcing Nolfi to push the film uphill before it’s been able to gather any momentum.
The script (which Nolfi co-wrote with Niceole Levy, David Lewis Smith, and Stan Younger) offers several valid explanations for its protagonist’s complete lack of charisma, but none of them satisfy the demands of a movie that relies on a fleet-footed sense of fun to power through a story that’s ultimately about financial statements. Garret could be suffocating himself in order to appeal to white gatekeepers, or — as Morris believes — he could be soldered closed by the heat of his own anger, but that’s not enough to redeem an inert character who never grows beyond an idea.
Fortunately, the irrepressible Samuel L. Jackson is a perfect foil, and he splashes into the picture by playing Morris as a hedonistic real-estate tycoon who’s already a bit drunk on the taste of beating white guys at a game they’ve rigged in their favor. Morris’ cackling sense of adventure helps galvanize Garrett’s ambition, and it isn’t long before the two of them team up, graduate from residential properties, and try to buy the tallest building in downtown Los Angeles — a building that just happens to house a few of the banks that refuse to go into business with black people. And with the help of an alabaster hunk named Matt Steiner, they might just pull it off.
Playing one of several kind white characters in a movie that never fails to recognize how colorblind people can still perpetuate institutional prejudice, Hoult makes the best of a somewhat thankless role that’s largely churned into long training montages. The ultra-expedient script forces the movie to spend far too much time in fast-forward, even if these sequences allow Nolfi to get into the slick revolutionary groove where “The Banker” wants to be. But the greatest disservice the movie does to Hoult comes from the discomforting way that it forces him into the foreground, as Steiner’s role in the spotlight has a way of minimizing his black cohorts into the margins of their own movie.
Somehow, that problem only becomes more pronounced in the second half of this story, as the action relocates to Texas, when Garrett secretly buys out his hometown bank. Hoult seems to be as distressed about this as we are, and only grows more so as Steiner scrambles to hide that he’s just a façade for the black investors behind him. It doesn’t help that “The Banker” never gets a firm handle on Steiner’s competency; he’s braindead in some scenes yet brilliant in others, and the resulting inconsistency saps the life out of an ending that requires him to be several different things at once. Inevitably, the one scene in which Eunice gets to be more than “the wife” only underscores the extent to which Steiner pulls attention from the movie’s true subjects; the character is aware of his privilege, and yet everyone around him suffers for it all the same.
As a result of its poor investments, “The Banker” never achieves the cogent moral velocity it needs to sell this story (heavily fudged as it is). And yet, the film is still lucid enough for us to understand why Nolfi felt compelled to make it, as the exasperation of watching these people negotiate their own privilege (or lack thereof) calls powerful attention to the arbitrary nature of America’s casting process. The roles we’re given are meant to preserve a status quo that belongs to the people who benefit from it; if Garrett’s legacy can teach those AP students anything, it’s that owning a piece of this country is often the only way to change it.
Apple will release “The Banker” in theaters on Friday, March 6. It will be available to stream on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 20.
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