With high caliber star factor and a well-written script based on an important story too few are aware of, The Banker is a film that should be on everyone’s watch list. George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) directs Anthony Mackie (Bernard Garrett) and Samuel Jackson (Joe Morris) in the 1960s set story about the two successful African-American entrepreneurs who become two of the first Black bankers in the United States. While Garret and Morris are not household names like Jackie Robinson and other more famous “first African-Americans to break the color barrier” in their chosen field, the importance of these men cannot be overstated.
During the Jim Crow era of segregation financial credit was virtually non-existent for Blacks in the South and border states. Jim Crow laws and customs were established by state and local governments and other societal groups in order to continue indentured servitude of African Americans by putting limits on salaries, professions, travel, and where they could live. Limiting access to credit was one of the most powerful weapons used to curtail the advancement of Black America. In Jim Crow areas there were no banks owned by African Americans and very few if any, White-owned banks would loan money to black families and individuals, which limited where they could live and their ability to own and grow business.
Born in 1925 in a small Texas town, Bernard Garrett was born with an intellect and ambition that led him to leave his home and pursue greater opportunities to build a life free from the Jim Crow restraints. After moving to Los Angeles Garrett met Joe Morris, a successful businessman who had connections with the Los Angeles and California business establishment. Even with the greater acceptance of successful black businesses, Garrett and Morris faced limitations in the size and type of investment opportunities they could pursue because of their race.
The Banker details how Garrett and Morris broke through these limitations to become two of the most successful businessmen in the United States. While visiting his home in Texas and seeing how little had changed regarding opportunities for African Americans, Garrett set about dismantling one of the most powerful tools supporting the Jim Crow status quo, a lack of access to capital.
The script is fast-moving and, given the importance of the subject, surprisingly full of lighter moments and humor. One of the major twists in the true story is most engaging, and though it could easily have been mishandled in the film, it seems as genuine and not forced. Unsurprisingly, Mackie and Jackson offer solid, well rounded and fluid performances, enhanced by their personal chemistry. The supporting cast also supplies energy and smooth performances particularly Nicholas Hoult as Matt Steiner, and Nia Long as Garrett’s wife Eunice. Unlike, The Green Book, another film that cast light on a subject with which many were not familiar, the book that listed places African Americans could stay when traveling throughout the country, The Banker does not have the feel of a white savior story.
In an interview with the director and co-screenwriter George Nolfi, I asked about the genesis of the story and his involvement. The details of Bernard Garrett’s career and his struggles against the systemic racism of his time were captured in taped interviews prior to his death in 1999. The rights to his life story were then purchased by another studio where the story languished for many years. While Nolfi was directing Anthony Mackie for a scene in The Adjustment Bureau, Mackie pitched The Banker to Nolfi for him to take on the project. As is often the case, other projects intervened and it was another five or six years before things fell together for the film.
The important role Garrett and Morris played in laying the foundations that would redress one of the most savage and often used tools in limiting the opportunity of African Americans was what attracted George Nolfi to the project. More specifically, the willingness of Garrett, initially, then Morris to not rest safely on their laurels and success, but put their achievements at risk in service to others, compelled him to join the project.
In making the film, Nolfi came face to face with the reality that without the opportunity to build wealth, people are unable to truly experience freedom and stability in their finances and life. He became more aware of the impact systemic racism had, and currently still has in society. Nolfi hopes this film will help viewers realize, that although they themselves may not be racist, the echoes and effects of systemic racism in the past, and to the extent, it still exists today, continue to erect higher hurdles for persons of color. With such understanding, it will be easier to dismantle the surviving elements of systemic racism as well as the lasting impact from its past application. Nolfi also hopes that learning of the injustices these men faced, and their willingness to take them on and set in motion events that resulted in their eradication, others will be challenged and empowered to stand against current injustices and systemic hardships.
As was noted during the release of The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi endeavors to spark imagination and thought on the part of the audience. Growing up involved in the United Church of Christ, this desire to spark thought and conversation extends to issues of life, faith, and discipleship. The film is a reminder that the nation has not always lived up to the aspirations of its founding documents that all people are created equal and should be allowed to pursue happiness. Likewise, the Church has not always lived up to its commission to love God by loving all people, making disciples, and being the Body of Christ on earth. The Banker challenges viewers to examine where they can do better in upholding what we claim to believe in.
The Banker has several touchpoints with Scripture and faith. As Moses was forced to leave his home in order to find peace and security and then after finding it, is called to return to Egypt, Bernard escaped the land where, because of his skin color, intellect, and drive to succeed, he was a target. Like Moses, following Bernard’s escape and the successful life he built, he resisted the temptation to stay where he was, afraid of losing what he had, and returned home to help his community escape the indentured servitude that had confined them so long.
A second touchpoint with Scripture is with the parable of the Talents. Both Garrett and Morris had been given keen minds and abilities through which they achieved success. Had they remained in California, content to live their lives and build bigger personal fortunes while so many others remained under the oppressive powers of Jim Crow laws and customs, they would have been like the servant who buried the talent the Master gave him to grow. They had been given talents that led to affluence, and they were expected to use those blessings beyond furthering their personal wealth.
Lastly, the story shows the importance of remembering where true treasure is. True treasures are those in heaven. True greatness and wealth in living are received in serving others. Garrett and Morris wanted their lives to have been more than zeros in a financial statement. George Nolfi and others attached to the project hope the story enables people to be mindful and motivated such that their lives will be measured for things beyond a balance sheet.
The Banker is rated PG-13 and with the closing of most movie theaters, can be viewed on Apple TV+. #thebanker