Wealth. When institutional racism is discussed, it is the creation of wealth that has long been denied to black people even after the end of slavery. There is a huge difference between being rich, and being wealthy. White people have passed down wealth from generation to generation, whereas black people, through a variety of underhanded means, have been prevented from doing this. So it’s interesting to see Hollywood put such an emphasis on black wealth of late (Black Wall Street in Watchmen, Netflix’s Self Made), and Apple TV+ film The Banker is a crowd-pleasing, uncomplicated caper about two enterprising men of color, played by a pair of actors used to accomplishing superheroic feats.
The Banker, which sounds like the title of a Jason Statham action franchise, actually tells the true story of Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris, played by Avengers alums Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by The Adjustment Bureau‘s George Nolfi, the film centers on Bernard and Joe’s attempts to make it rich as among the first African-American bankers in a time when financial institutions catered only to white men.
As a kid growing up in racist Texas of the 1930s, Bernard had to be careful about showing his intellect and his ambitions. Eavesdropping on the conversations of white businessmen gained him a working knowledge of how to get rich, although his working-class father warns him that it’ll never happen. Cut to years later and Bernard is in Los Angeles looking for real estate investment opportunities. It’s there that he first meets roguish entrepreneur Joe Morris, but refuses to work with such a shady individual. Bernard instead hooks up with an Irish agent (Colm Meaney), who digs his idea of buying up white properties and making them affordable for black tenants. It pisses off the white populace but earns Bernard a bunch of money, even though he must stay in the shadows as it’s safer to have a white face to the company.
This becomes a theme when Bernard eventually begins teaming up with Joe, and they hire working stiff Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), who can barely do math, to be the front for their expanding business. A big part of The Banker involves Joe, Bernard, and Bernard’s level-headed wife Eunice (Nia Long) teaching Matt how to be the sophisticated con man he’ll need to be to pull this off.
So there are certainly heist elements to be found here, and they add a lot to The Banker‘s charm. Without them it would unfold like a fairly standard biopic, episodic in nature and free of embellishment. But it’s genuinely entertaining to watch Mackie and Jackson trade barbs while manipulating a rigged system. Together, Bernard and Joe are able to knock down barriers they couldn’t as individuals, including a scheme to control a major bank that Bernard couldn’t even get a loan meeting.
Those hoping for a deeper look at the civil rights aspect aren’t going to get it, though. Set in roughly the same time period as Green Book, racism is handled in a similarly hands-off way. The duo faces obstacles from a racist white establishment, especially when they try to expand in Texas, but there’s never the danger they must’ve truly felt. The Banker shifts too much of its focus onto Matt’s story, which may be interesting but is definitely a B-plot to the story of two black men trying to buck a system they are meant to fail against. Bernard’s hope, along with making money, is to affect real social change and make it easier for others just like him. What he discovers is something Joe already knows, and it’s that activism and business are a volatile mix.
Controversy surrounded The Banker when it was due to open last year, delaying its release until recently. Before then, it was pegged as a possible awards contender, following in the vein of the similarly historical Hidden Figures. While not quite up to that film’s level, The Banker informs and entertains, while asking only for a modest investment of your time.