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‘The Banker,’ fun and illuminating, deserves your highest interest

Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson bring the charisma as real-life entrepreneurs who finagled their way past racial barriers.

Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult, left) is hired to provide a Caucasian face for businessmen Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) and Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) in “The Banker.”
Apple TV+

A few months ago, Apple was banking on a prestige, Oscar-bait project to announce itself as a serious new presence in the film business.

With the charismatic duo of Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson (“Avengers assemble!”) as the leads, “The Banker” was based on the true story of two African-American entrepreneurs who bucked the system in the 1950s and 1960s, built an impressive financial empire, ran afoul of the law and raised awareness of racist housing practices.

The plan changed when Cynthia Garrett, the daughter of Bernard Garrett (the character played by Mackie), came forward with accusations her half-brother Bernard Garrett, Jr., a credited producer on the film, had sexually abused her and her younger sister when they were children.

The movie was booked for the coveted closing night showcase at the American Film Institute’s festival last November, to be followed by a Dec. 6 theatrical release, just in time for awards consideration.

Apple quickly pulled “The Banker” from the AFI showcase and the theatrical release. (I was literally hours away from a scheduled opportunity to see it when I was told everything was on hold.) Bernard Garrett Jr. is no longer listed as a producer.

Fast forward to the present, with “The Banker” finally arriving in theaters for a two-week run prior to a March 20 debut on Apple TV+.

Even though the time period covered in the film ends prior to the 1970s, when the alleged acts of abuse by Bernard Garrett Jr. occurred, one can’t help but have profound respect for Cynthia and her story.

But at the end of the day, our purpose here is to review “The Banker” as a fictional movie — and while it takes poetic license with the facts in the tradition of every dramatization from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “Amadeus” to “A Beautiful Mind” to “Green Book,” this is a film brimming with essential truth about the events at hand, and it delivers an impactful but also entertainingly resonant message.

It’s also a crackling good, emotionally satisfying, old-fashioned thriller, with readily identifiable heroes and hiss-worthy villains.

Anthony Mackie has a very solid career going, but he should be an even bigger star, as evidenced by his instantly likable performance here as Bernard Garrett, an off-the-charts-brilliant and forward-thinking real estate speculator who teams up with Samuel L. Jackson’s Joe Morris to pull off a series of audacious and immensely profitable deals, against all odds in the racist market of the 1950s.

For all their success, Bernard and Joe run into seemingly impenetrable walls when they try to expand their operation. Certain doors (e.g., at country clubs) can be opened only by Caucasians. They’re gonna need a white guy to take it to the next level.

Nicholas Hoult turns in a terrific dramatic/comedic performance as one Matt Steiner, a “socially acceptable” Caucasian who basically stands in for Bernard, a la Adam Driver in “BlacKkKlansman.”

Director and co-writer George Nolfi does a nifty job of framing “The Banker” like a heist film, with Bernard, Joe, Matt et al., pulling off some slick moves to take over a couple of banks and level the playing field so working-class blacks in the Deep South can have the same opportunities to buy a house or own a small business.

Anthony Mackie always carries himself with an effortless, All-American, leading-man persona. He brings that star power to his role as the aforementioned Bernard, who emerges from the small-time, small-town cocoon of 1950s Texas to arrive in Southern California in pursuit of the American Dream.

From the moment Samuel L. Jackson enters any movie, there’s zero doubt that he’ll liven up the proceedings — but Jackson turns in one of the most authentic and robust performances of his career as Joe Morris, a pragmatic, flamboyant, seen-it-all businessman. Initially skeptical of Bernard’s revolutionary, mathematics-based economic theories, he eventually goes all-in with Bernard, consequences be damned.

Sometimes “The Banker” has an almost farcical, Cyrano de Bergerac tone, as Bernard and Joe school the clueless but earnest Matt in how to interact with racist buffoons who have no clue the young white guy in front of them is nothing but a handsome puppet.

But at various and poignant times along the way, as when Bernard, Joe and Bernard’s first wife, played by Nia Long, go undercover and literally don the trappings of subservient workers such as limo drivers, janitors and maids, we’re reminded this isn’t just some light-hearted, jaunty romp through recent history. It’s a sobering and searing reminder of the strides and sacrifices made by pioneers who refused to accept the status quo.