George Nolfi’s The Banker structures an important historical story like a crime/heist caper while offering an acting showcase for Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson.
Following a scrubbed festival premiere last November due to sexual assault allegations directed at the son of the film’s real-life protagonist, Apple will be releasing The Banker, their first original feature this morning. The film will play in limited theatrical release before it enters its “forever home” on AppleTV+ this March 20. The streaming platform has been an oddity in the so-called streaming wars, existing as a ridiculously cheap ($5 per month) offering that has existed somewhat under-the-radar for the very same reason it’s somewhat worth rooting for, namely its total lack of IP.
They don’t own nostalgia-friendly franchises and don’t have a backlog of fan-favorite shows and movies. AppleTV+ is going to live or die on allegedly prestigious and star-driven content that was supposed to resemble so-called “peak TV” before the streaming wars sent everyone back to the IP well. And, yes, if you have $5 to spare, there is more than enough enjoyable episodic content to justify a sample, whether or not you get it for free by virtue of having a participating Apple product.
The Morning Show is enjoyable, Dickinson is an unapologetic romp and I’m quite enjoying my slow dive into Servant. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Little America, There are currently 15 episodics, including the newly debuting reboot of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, either already available or arriving soon. I can’t vouch for every offering, but if you want a streaming service that, by default, is still playing by the “peak TV” rules, AppleTV+ is your best bet.
And, yes, George Nolfi’s The Banker is exactly the kind of high-quality, adult-skewing, character-driven, “Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this anymore” flick that was supposed to justify a demographic shift from theaters to streaming in the first place. Starring Anthony Mackie in an all-too-rare lead role, this “based on a true story” piece of somewhat under-the-radar history does its thing and does it well. It’s a period-piece dramedy about two black businessmen, Mackie as the ambitious upstart and Samuel L. Jackson (relishing another strong co-starring role) as the cynical success story who becomes his quasi-mentor, who become the first African-American citizens to own a bank in the United States.
I have no idea how much is factually accurate, but I don’t care since A) it’s not a documentary and B) I’m not using it to cheat on a school assignment. The onscreen drama seems plausible enough to merit a presumption of belief, the narrative and character interactions pass my unofficial “this would be worthwhile even if it were fiction” test for allegedly true-life stories. The production values are more than competent, and while it’s not an overly cinematic affair, Nolfi allows his actors, especially his star trio (including Nicolas Hoult as the white guy they hire to be the face of their business) to chew into meaty work and thoughtful conversations.
The picture is crafted to resemble a kind of caper, with portions of the first half playing out like a heist movie. The joke, and yes, the tragedy, is that Bernard Garrett (Mackie) and Joe Morris (Jackson) aren’t criminals, and their “scheme” is merely first to make money by buying real estate and then (by the end of the first act) purchasing a bank that would allow them to give out loans and capital to members of the black community otherwise shut out of the so-called American Dream. They aren’t necessarily breaking the law, but they still have to play the role of con artists so that everyone will think that the white guy is the boss.
Writer/producer/director George Nolfi uses the moral hypocrisy as a thematic foundation. Matt Steiner is a quick study and has zero issues taking orders from two behind-the-scenes black men, but he (sans any intended malice) begins to believe in what is essentially a role play. The best scene in the movie, a quick and honest chat between Steiner and Garrett’s wife Nia Long, lays this bare. The entire “scheme,” which is a “diabolical” plot to allow black Americans to get loans and buy homes in Jim Crow-era America, only works because of the presumption of Matt’s competence as a well-dressed white man. The real brains of the operation are forced to hide in the shadows play-acting as chauffeurs and janitors.
The Banker is a richly entertaining and insightful character play, one which relishes a chance to offer a piece of comparatively little-known history while existing as an acting showcase for Mackie, Jackson and Hoult. They get able support by the likes of Long, Scott Daniel Johnson (as an adversarial co-worker) and Colm Meaney (as an unexpectedly supportive early participant), in service of an unassumingly small-scale movie that just works in all ways intended. It’s a distinctly old-school Hollywood programmer that entertains and educates, with all of the spit-polish that a mere $11 million budget can buy. The Banker earns your investment and your interest.