Most shoeshine boys just shine shoes. Not Bernard Garrett.
He didn’t just polish the leather of rich, white men’s Oxfords: He listened. And learned. He took notes as his literally well-heeled clients talked about their 1939 real estate deals: capitalization rates, escrows, tie-in arrangements. He gathered up knowledge like his rags gathered up shoe polish, wiping it up bit by bit.
Admittedly, Bernard couldn’t do much with all that information—not in Willis, Texas, where the societal strata was strictly defined, and woe to any black man who dared dream above his station.
“You were born the wrong color,” Bernard’s father says.
Maybe in Texas. But California? It’s a little different out there.
Fifteen years later, Bernard and his wife, Eunice, move to Los Angeles, where Bernard hopes he can make his fortune. Soon he partners with white property mogul Patrick Barker, and they make a fine living together: Bernard finds undervalued properties and crunches the numbers. Barker serves as the more public face of the outfit, so as not to scare off any would-be sellers. But when Barker dies suddenly and his widow has no interest in doing business with a black man, Bernard’s in the market for a new partner—and a new bit of real estate.
The property? The Bankers Building, an Art Deco jewel in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. A dozen banks make their home in the 14-story building—banks that sometimes wouldn’t even let someone of Bernard’s color make an appointment inside.
The partner? Joe Morris, the well-to-do owner of L.A.’s hopping Plantation Club, a man with shares of buildings and businesses across the city.
But Joe’s black, too. And while California isn’t as discriminatory as Texas was, plenty of Los Angelinos would still have problems with an architectural landmark being owned by those sorts of people.
So Bernard turns to Matt Steiner—a young, white kid whose only previous business venture was a failed drive-through ice-cream parlor.
“Turns out, people don’t want to eat ice cream while driving their cars,” he tells Bernard sheepishly.
But Matt needs to do more than just look the part. To make this work, Bernard and Joe have to go all Pygmalion on Matt and turn him into a guy who knows how to play golf, rattle off real estate numbers and pick which fork to use during a four-course lunch. And they’ve got to get him ready in a month. No, it won’t be easy. But Bernard grew up in the Jim Crow south. He knows nothing worth doing comes easy, especially not for a black man.
The Banker tells us that it’s based on a true story—a statement that some, including members of the real Bernard Garrett’s own family, question. We’re not going to investigate the movie’s historicity here, but rather take the film on its own merits—that is, examine what the movie’s version of Bernard Garrett embodies.
As such, you have to respect what Bernard brings to the table: His smarts, his ambition, his creativity. And while Bernard and Joe do keep a low profile, the never technically lie about their involvement in any of the properties that they buy.
Admittedly, both dive into the business, at first, for purely selfish reasons: They want to get rich. But their motivation changes as the story goes on. When Bernard makes a trip back to Willis, he realizes that even though he’s made quite the success of himself in Los Angeles, the folks back home never had the opportunity. The system in the South largely keeps those in Willis’ black community poor and disenfranchised. From that point on, Bernard and Joe’s business takes on a different sheen: They want to help the people who are so often marginalized. They want to break down some of the segregation in the state. And they do so in the only way (the movie suggests) they can.
Bernard and Eunice clearly love and care for each other, and Eunice serves as a surprisingly active helpmate in Bernard’s business dealings.
The Banker also strives to help viewers understand the prevalence and destructive nature of racism and prejudice. Racism in action, obviously, isn’t a good thing. But the film’s attempt to chronicle these historically harsh realities is. The racially charged experiences we see can range from Bernard being denied an appointment with a banker (without the secretary even checking the calendar) to far more overt bias, such as when a racial epithet is painted on a sign or an apartment tenant who moves out when she learns the new owner is black. (Barker also says he’s been the victim of mild discrimination, too, because of his Irish lineage.)
Bernard and Joe eventually buy a bank in Texas, primarily to help African-Americans procure much-needed loans for their businesses. When they first come to town, Bernard calls a meeting of local church pastors and asks them to look for congregants who might be both interested and qualified. “Our goal is to foster business growth and home ownership,” Bernard tells them.
When Joe and Bernard first meet, Joe makes some suggestive comments about Eunice (a former employee of his). Later, when Eunice and Joe go to the Plantation Club for an evening, Joe stops by Bernard’s table as Eunice mingles with others. He tells Bernard that (using a more obscene term) he’s not sleeping with his wife. When Bernard asks if he makes it a habit of stopping by his customers’ tables and reassuring his guests of that, Joe laughs. “I might have to skip some of ’em,” he says.
Eunice does wear a cleavage-baring top once. Matt flirts with, and later marries, a waitress named Susan. Joe is surrounded by three females, one of whom sits on his lap. He makes a crude parallel between his and Bernard’s first joint real estate deal and losing one’s virginity.
As a boy, Bernard gets pulled away from a bank window by a police officer: He escapes the man’s clutches and runs home. Later that night, Bernard’s father examines the financial notes that Bernard’s been making as a shoeshine boy, then tells his young son, “I seen boys killed for this.” The father adds that it’s not a pretty sight to see a boy hanging from a tree.
One f-word and at least a dozen s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–tard,” “d–n” and “h—.” The n-word is used three times, one of which is scrawled across a business owner’s sign. God’s name is paired with “d–n” about seven times.
While teaching Matt how to golf, Joe instructs his pupil to “keep your f-ing head down” (using the letter “f,” not the word). It becomes something of a catchphrase between the two of them, and we hear it repeated often.
Shortly after meeting Bernard, Joe offers the serious man a cigar. When Bernard tells Joe that he doesn’t smoke, Joe says, “Oh,” and conspicuously snuffs out the burning cigarette in the ashtray sitting in front of Bernard.
We see several characters smoke both cigarettes and cigars, and Bernard gives some expensive cigars to his father as a gift. Part of Matt’s education is to be able to drink and appreciate whisky, so they pour out several tumblers for him to quaff. During one of Matt’s long business lessons, Joe seems to get rather drunk. (He slurs his words as he talks.)
Bernard suggests that Joe’s Plantation Club runs afoul of the city’s vice squad.
[Spoiler Warning] The movie closes with lots of suggestions of financial mismanagement and potential malfeasance, and Bernard and Joe are sent to jail. The movie implies that they were completely innocent—casualties in their efforts to fight an inherently racist system. But still, legally, they both were convicted of felonies.
The Banker was supposed to be Apple TV+’s first foray into cinematic awards-season contention, complete with an original December 2019 release date and an Oscars-qualifying run in theaters. All the ingredients seemed to be in place: a resonant story, fine performances from Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, and deep pockets for a serious campaign.
All of that got upended when two of the real Bernard Garrett’s daughters reminded the world that their half-brother—Bernard Garrett Jr., who’s depicted in the movie briefly and was listed as one the film’s co-producers—had allegedly sexually molested them beginning when he was about 15 and they were just 7 and 4 years old. They also alleged that the film’s historicity is faulty, saying that some of its events took place after Bernard and Eunice had divorced.
Bernard Jr. denied the allegations and removed his name from the movie, but that was hardly enough to reinvigorate the movie’s positive buzz. Apple yanked the film from awards contention and decided to quietly roll it out in March—though two of Bernard’s ex-wives asked the corporation to shelve it completely.
It’s beyond the purview of this review to get into those behind-the-scenes allegations, serious though they are. We can only talk about the movie itself. And restricting our focus to just the story we see here, The Banker is … pretty OK?
The film falls short, in my estimation, of serious awards-season traction, even if it had been released as planned. The pace drags a bit at times, and the complex financial transactions that shape the final act of the movie can be difficult to follow. It feels as if the movie was in a hurry to wrap itself up.
And then, of course, the film has some content concerns, too—primarily the strong language that can pepper the dialogue and pervasive smoking and drinking (though only rarely to excess).
That said, The Banker is still less problematic than many an Oscar-bait flick, settling into its PG-13 rating. And the film does introduce us to a couple of bright, creative and charismatic characters who take on a biased system for the betterment of themselves and, eventually, others. It serves up some of the vicarious thrill of a caper flick—only instead of stealing money, like a couple of Robin Hoods, they earn the stuff. The Banker offers respect for capitalism, a social conscience and a sense of fun—not a combination you find often.
When a trusting Bernard asks a cynical Joe (who admits he doesn’t trust anyone) how he can bear to get up in the morning with all that pessimism in tow, Joe sums up his philosophy neatly: “Even a rigged game is fun to play, Bernard.”
The Banker, some say, is a rigged movie—one that barrels to its conclusion with not enough concern for the facts. But it comes with a few things to think about, too, and it infuses those lessons with a semblance of fun.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.