Apple had a lot riding on the success of The Banker, an historical race-based drama starring Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicholas Hoult, directed by George Nolfi. Slated for its world premiere in the coveted closing night slot at the AFI Film Festival last November, The Banker was set for a strong awards push, bolstered by the success the previous year of Green Book, a film similar in style and content. It was not to be, however, as the producers were forced to pull out of the festival at the last minute because of sexual abuse allegations that arose within the family of one of the real-life characters portrayed in the film. Not only were its awards hopes scrapped, but The Banker was pushed from November to March, and it has only just now become available to stream on the Apple TV+ service. Although Green Book managed to overcome its myriad controversies during awards season last year, The Banker seemed to irrevocably suffer and looked destined for the dust heap of history, a devastating blow to Apple, who were looking to compete with Netflix and Amazon, who both have already jumped way ahead in the feature film race.
But Apple and The Banker could reap some unexpected rewards as millions of Americans are now homebound due to the Corona virus and are thirsting for new things to watch on their streaming services. Unfortunately, it may not prove to be the critical or commercial boon that Apple was hoping for, as its old-fashioned and bland style stifles an interesting story, despite a thoroughly delightful performance from Samuel L. Jackson.
The Banker tells the true story of Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Jackson), two black men who work the system to become two of the biggest bankers/real estate titans in the country in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It is a fascinating tale, how these two men managed to build their wealth and empire from behind the scenes, hiring a white man (Nicholas Hoult) to be the face of their business in order to not raise any suspicions—think Blackkklansman, but with banking.
Their scheme eventually falls apart—in a way you don’t expect—and Garrett and Morris end up being found out and tried for fraud, but their story remains one worthy of telling and is a key cog in the expansion of civil rights in America.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers choose to tell the story in the most lifeless and bland way possible. Although it never dumbs down the business and numbers side of things, there is little emotional connection and the movie falls into far too many familiar and well-worn tropes and techniques to rise this film above anything more than mild entertainment.
What hurts the film the most is Mackie’s performance. His choice to play Garrett as cold, calculating and aloof creates a distance that prevents us ever really connecting or caring about him personally. Similarly underutilized is Nia Long, who plays Garrett’s wife. Long is painfully reduced to the traditional and familiar supportive wife role, one that, frankly, I can go the rest of my life without seeing again. Hoult, one of my favorite actors, does a fine job, but is similarly limited by the material and the artistic choices.
The bright, shining spot in The Banker is Samuel L. Jackson, who gives the movie its life and energy. Without overplaying it, Jackson finds every bit of humor and personality in his role, giving the audience a much-needed bit of complex sustenance in a film otherwise devoid of depth or texture.
The Banker also suffers a bit from a bizarre tone overall. There are so many funny moments, it sometimes feels like a flat-out comedy or even a satire, but then the underlying theme of racism in America brings out the drama, and the sometimes heavy-handed and overly-obvious lecturing borders on eye-rolling . Not helping is the score, which creates a weird and emotionally contrary vibe throughout the film, which is confusing and distracting.
Considering we don’t have many options for original movies to watch right now though, there are many worse choices you could make than watching The Banker. It tells an interesting story and Samuel L. Jackson makes it time well spent, but don’t expect much more beyond that, especially if you are hoping for anything groundbreaking or original.