Political Film Review #618

THE BANKER SHOWS HOW TO DESEGREGATE HOUSING

Housing segregation was a problem in the Texas hometown of real estate genius Bernard Garrett (played by Anthony Mackie). While shining shoes for Whites as a youngster, he uses his mathematical genius to understand the complexities of real estate business by overhearing his clients. In 1954, he moves to Los Angeles along with his wife Eunice (Nia Long), who provides support in the ups and downs to follow. (Filming is in Atlanta, not LA.)

Garrett’s goal is to buy White-owned homes on the edges of the Black section of town so that upcoming African American professionals could leave rundown conditions in the slums for comfortable housing. But he has to afford high prices in LA, and no major banker in town will even allow him an appointment due to redlining. Soon “partnered” with Patrick Barker (Colm Meany), he is able to proceed with his plan until Barker dies. The arrangement involves Barker as the owner, while Garrett handles remodeling and sales—and receives profits. But Barker’s widow takes back full ownership, and he is back at square one. He next partners with nightclub owner Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), who relies on some financial help from Donald Silverthorne (Paul Ben-Victor), a Jewish banker in San Francisco. To ensure that LA bankers will provide much more capital for loans, they buy the Bankers Building in downtown LA, with Silverthorne as their agent, thus ensuring that banker tenants in the building will make loans. Together, they buy more than 100 properties, beginning the process of desegregating LA, which long banned sale of White properties to Black customers. Garrett becomes very wealthy, buying a palatial house.

But Garrett now wants to return to Texas to carry out the same success in one part of the segregated South. To do so, he must have a White person as the prospective buyer. For a month, Garrett and Morris train Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), who has helped with their remodeling, into someone who can golf, dine, and negotiate with White bank sellers. He succeeds, but the son of the banker who sells to Steiner is suspicious of the two co-purchasers who have made the purchase but have never surfaced until he barges into an office with all three present. He then complains to the Comptroller of the Currency. Realizing that several loans may not meet strict standards of that federal agency, the trio decide to buy another bank three months later, shifting the shaky loans to the second bank in order to avoid problems at the first bank. Then Steiner’s wife Susie (Taylor Black) insists that he must be the owner of the second bank. Steiner, however, is unfamiliar with how to run a bank. After the Comptroller representative gets a complaint about the second bank, an investigation begins, and soon both banks are shut down due to errors by Steiner, and their fortunes evaporate in 1964.

The only possible remedy now is political. In 1965, testimony in Congress before a committee headed by Arkansas Senator John McClellan might open a door that could drop charges against the trio. But McClellan wants the three to lie. When the time comes for Garrett to testify, he decides to denounce racial segregation in housing. Soon, the two Black men are imprisoned for three years for bank fraud, while Steiner is given immunity.

Asditional facts, some disputed (https://deadline.com/2020/01/the-banker-linda-garrett-response-apple-movie-controversy-1202834081/), color the biopic: President Lyndon Johnson met both Garrett and Morris in 1964, and boasted about the success of the two Black bankers. Though his leadership Congress passed the Housing Discrimination Act in 1968. Garrett’s goal, thus, is achieved after a struggle for 24 years.

The Banker, directed by George Nolfi, clearly brings an important milestone in Black history to light, meriting a Political Film Society nomination for best film exposé of 2020. Because that history identifies the issues of Jim Crow and racial discrimination, The Banker is also nominated for best film on human rights of 2020.  MH