The Banker focuses on an obscure figure in history. Set before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the film is about Bernard S. Garrett, an African-American entrepreneur who faced racism in his real estate and banking endeavors. The results are mixed as the film takes huge liberties to tell a tale of inequality and mathematics.
Anthony Mackie plays Bernard with determination. Bernard is a Texas-born numbers genius. He moves his wife Eunice (Nia Long) to Los Angeles in hopes to buy property and then rent housing to black people. He struggles until he meets Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson in full form here). Morris is a business man with deep pockets who like jazz, drinking and women. The film has fun playing him against the more buttoned-up Bernard. The film needs more Morris as Jackson injects so much energy into him.
As the two men join up, they integrate neighborhoods that were historically segregated. This feels like a significant achievement but the film pays little time to it. Instead, a bulk of The Banker is about them trying to buy banks with the help of a white worker Matt (Nicholas Hoult). The training of Matt by Bernard and Morris leads to a number of montages and conversations that get deep into the details of the math involved in bank loans. It isn't riveting stuff but the film manages to keep things moving along.
Director George Nolfi, who co-wrote the script with several others, tries to make the case that Bernard is a revolutionary figure. It doesn't work as the script often paints him as a self-interested entrepreneur. His politics are never felt, his conviction never clear, aside from the desire to make money. You will still root for them but they never feel like they represent anyone but themselves.
The Banker does have some moving moments. Watching two black men explain how they have had to navigate white power is powerful. The film makes clear the lengths they go to just to own something. I wish Bernard's inner struggle was clearer though. He never feels like a real person but more of a summary of a real person. You can sense the film knows that it can't seem to crack his motivations and thus shifts its focus to Matt, the white character, often. This is at odds with what the film seems to be about. The Banker should be about the black men who have to have a false white front in order to own a bank but instead the film focuses the fake white front.