MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For many African Americans living in the late 1950s and early 1960s, home ownership or starting a business were all but impossible due to policies that mandated segregation.
Enter Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris, two successful black businessmen who devised an audacious plan to buy real estate and banks to help those marginalized due to their skin color pursue the American Dream.
This is the fascinating true story behind George Nolfi’s “The Banker,” hitting the streaming service AppleTV Plus on March 20. Starring Anthony Mackie (“Captain America”), Samuel L. Jackson (“The Hateful Eight”), Nicholas Hoult (“Tolkien”) and Nia Long, the drama expertly brings to life a rich and entertaining little-known piece of history.
The film opens in 1930s Texas, where a young Bernard eavesdrops on the men whose shoes he’s shining to learn the ins and outs of the business world. Smart and ambitious, he meticulously records everything he learns in a notebook. However, Bernard is discouraged from pursuing his dreams by his father, who reminds him that his skin color will get in the way of success.
Fast forward several decades to 1954 Los Angeles, where an adult Bernard (Mackie) now lives with his wife, Eunice (Long), and his young son. Outfitted in a smartly-tailored suit, Bernard seeks to buy up investment properties but is repeatedly told “no” by hesitant sellers. It’s not until he meets Patrick Barker, an Irish property owner intrigued by the idea of buying properties in white neighborhoods that are adjacent to black neighborhoods, that Bernard is given a chance.
Despite his business acumen, Bernard is forced to remain behind-the-scenes, as his skin color proves to be an obstacle for white property owners. When his partnership with Barker unexpectedly ends, Bernard reluctantly joins forces with Joe (Jackson), a savvy, rough-around-the-edges businessman whose life motto — “don’t trust anyone” — has seemingly served him well.
The two men decide to hire Matt Steiner (Holt), a working-class white man to be the face of their real-estate empire. They teach him how to play golf, drink whiskey, do basic math, and use business lingo to "fit in" with wealthy white business owners. While Matt negotiates with others in the industry, Bernard and Joe watch nearby, pretending to be a janitor and chauffeur.
It’s an effective ruse for a moment, and it’s not long before the trio experience tremendous success. But as their earnings pile up, so does their ambition. At Bernard’s behest, the men decide to expand their business from LA to Texas with the goal of purchasing a bank that would allow them to give out loans and capital to members of the black community.
Unfortunately, the men are met with pushback from Texas bankers and businessmen who seek to expose their entire “plot.” Soon, the federal government gets involved — and everything Bernard and Joe have worked for threatens to crumble.
Based on real-life testimonies, court documents, and tapes, “The Banker” is a thoroughly entertaining and educational film. It highlights the struggles of aspiring African-American businessmen amid Jim Crowe segregation and the bravery of civil rights heroes willing to “stick it to the man” despite the risks. It’s satisfying to watch as the film’s antagonists — in this case, greedy white bankers — are fooled by three savvy entrepreneurs determined to create a better life for both themselves and their communities.
It’s also, Nolfi told The Christian Post, both a “celebration and a critique of capitalism.” The writer/director said he hopes to create a cultural conversation around the fact that while it’s “amazing what a kind of fair capitalism can do in terms of creating wealth in the country,” it “also doesn’t work for a lot of people,” both black and white.
There are, however, some content concerns with the film. Rated PG-13 for institutional racism, “The Banker” is littered with one f-word and at least a dozen s-words. The n-word is used three times, one of which is scrawled across a business owner’s sign, and God’s name is paired with “d–n” about seven times. Viewers should also be aware there are several instances of characters smoking and drinking.
Overall, “The Banker” is a worthwhile and thought-provoking watch. With a fascinating true premise, fine acting, and charismatic characters, it’s the perfect film to stream at home as theater attendance isn’t currently an option in many areas.