It’s an unfortunate reality that most historical films that focus on African Americans have to deal with their plights, be it slavery or the ingrained racism that has existed since slavery was abolished. Aside from transcendent figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, or Harriet Tubman, it’s rare to see stories told about successful African American figures.
The Banker, the first original feature film from Apple TV+, trades in both the familiar and unfamiliar. Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) grew up in a small town in Texas with little going for him except for a knack for understanding how the real estate market worked. Using his intelligence and a little luck, he was able to start a profitable career in real estate in Los Angeles in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Well, those two things, and the help of some trustworthy white men who would act as a go-between to appease closed-minded clients. Using one such man, Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), as his front, and another African American entrepreneur, Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), as his financial partner, Garrett would take on the establishment on multiple fronts, including taking over a bank in his hometown.
Directed by George Nolfi and co-written by Nolfi, Niceole R. Levy, David Lewis Smith, and Stan Younger, the film hits many of the beats you’d find in other similarly-themed movies. The difference this time is that Garrett has the wherewithal, both financial and otherwise, to stand up to his oppressors. Nolfi does a nice job of playing to the crowd when things go Garrett’s way, but not overplaying his hand when things don’t.
White people, especially Southerners, can often come off as cartoon villains in stories involving racism. While this film isn’t subtle about the prejudice Garrett encountered in his business dealings, it keeps an even keel when showing how that bigotry manifested itself. This is a welcome reprieve from other such films, and a sign that Nolfi may have learned from his predecessor’s mistakes.
Also helpful is that the story doesn’t necessarily go the way you’d expect. While friendly and cooperative, the relationship between Garrett, Morris, and Steiner goes through its ups-and-downs. Nolfi and his fellow filmmakers also dare to make the ending to the story not as feel-good as it could have been, an acknowledgment of both the truth of what actually happened and that filmgoers can be given something other than a happy ending every now and again.
Mackie and Jackson play well off each other, with Mackie being the straight man to Jackson’s more over-the-top persona. It’s a reminder that both actors can do much more than play Marvel characters, and do it extremely well. Hoult gets more than a few quality moments in a sizable supporting role, as does Nia Long as Garrett’s equally-capable and supportive wife.
The Banker was originally supposed to be released in time to qualify for an Oscars run, and the worthiness of the story, the storytelling, and the acting demonstrate that the streaming channel may be a player in awards seasons to come.
The Banker is now streaming on Apple TV+.