(director/writer: George Nolfi; screenwriters: Nicole Levy, David Lewis Smith, Stan Younger, story by David Lewis Smith, Stan Younger, Brad Caleb Kane; cinematographer: Charlotte Bruus Christensen; editor: Joel Viertel; music: H. Scott Salinas; cast: Anthony Mackie (Bernard Garrett), Samuel L. Jackson (Joe Morris), Nicholas Hoult (Matt Steiner), Taylor Black (Susie Steiner), Nia Long (Eunice Garrett), Jessie T. Usher (Tony Jackson), Colm Meaney (Patrick Barker), Michael Harney (Melvin Belli); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Joel Viertel, Brad Feinstein, George Nolfi, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jonathan Baker, David Lewis Smith, Anthony Mackie; Apple TV+ ; 2020)

“The script might have looked doable on paper, but when put on film it seems inert despite its charismatic stars.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director George Nolfi (“Birth of the Dragon”/”The Adjustment Bureau”) tells what should be an exciting true story about con artists who not only want to get rich but want to help their fellow blacks integrate the housing market. It’s based on a true story by David Lewis Smith, Stan Younger and Brad Caleb Kane, and is co-written by Nolfi in a heavy-handed manner with Nicole Levy, David Lewis Smith and Stan Younger. The promising biopic, a Robin Hood story of political activism, turns out to be a staid one, filled with cliches and a strained effort to be inoffensive. It’s a film meant to be fiery but is so tame that even Disney could have made it.

When Bernard Garrett Jr., the son of one of the film’s protagonists and one of the credited producers, was accused of sexual abuse by his half-sister, his name was removed as producer and the film’s opening was delayed.

The social conscience/crime drama is based on historic events that took place in the 1950s and ’60s, during the days of the Civil Rights Movement. It chronicles the story of the small town Texas raised uptight math whiz Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie), who moved to California with his wife Eunice (Nia Long) in the mid-1950s. He teamed-up with the loose-living, selfish, vulgarian, the owner of numerous properties and an L.A, Jazz club, Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson). They are a pair of African-American entrepreneurs who became rich as investors in the Los Angeles real-estate market, with the goal of also making it possible for blacks to move into formerly restricted all-white neighborhoods.

The slick duo realized that the real-estate business was a valuable business part of the banking business they were primarily interested in getting into. But, we’re told, they couldn’t get into the banking business because they were black. The clever way they got their foot in the door was to infiltrate the banks by recruiting a white home-repair worker with a good memory named Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to act as a front for them and they trained him to be a banker (the training sessions went on for too long and were tiresome). The two then would disguise themselves as a chauffeur and a janitor and go into the banks to spy on board meetings.

It turns to being mostly about the dull subject of finance: how it operates and how to succeed in that world. The script might have looked doable on paper, but when put on film it seems inert despite its charismatic stars.

One of its highlight stories is to put Garrett’s outlandish plan into action: to purchase The Bankers Building, a 14-story commercial building, in downtown L.A., the largest one in the city. By owning it they believed they would no longer have trouble getting loans from banks and could buy up local apartment complexes to renovate and integrate them while making their fortune.

The second half of “The Banker” makes a political statement, but the scheme unravels here as the white man is willing to bail on his black partners when things get hot.

Garrett, in 1963, leads his partners to buy the Mainland Bank back in his hometown of Willis. Steiner is once again the white front. The idea was to get the bank to give loans to black businesses so they can build a black middle class in his old Texas town. How Garrett’s grand scheme comes apart runs parallel to how the movie comes apart, as the smartest guys in the room play the race card until they no longer can.

REVIEWED ON 3/22/2020  GRADE:  C+