The Banker: True Story Brought to the Screen by Writer/Director George Nolfi
He’s written some of our favorite thrillers from Oceans 12 to The Bourne Ultimatum, The Adjustment Bureau and now The Banker. Writer/Director George Nofli tackles this true story that centers on revolutionary businessmen Bernard Garrett played by Anthony Mackie (Captain America, Avengers, The Hurt Locker) and Joe Morris played by Samuel L. Jackson (Iron Man, Avengers, The Hateful Eight) who come up with a risky plan to buy real estate and banks in the 1960s to help other African Americans pursue the American Dream. They train a working class white man, Matt Steiner played by Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien, X-Men, Mad Max) to pose as the rich and privileged face of their business empire. Their success ultimately draws the attention of the federal government, which threatens everything they have built. Risen sat down with Nolfi to talk about this story that has been twenty-five years in the making, the accuracies we see on screen, and the themes that are still relevant today.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine in Memphis, Tennessee
Risen Magazine: Let’s start off, how did you hear about the story? What did process look like adapting it for the screen?
George Nolfi: It’s been 25 years, actually, that somebody in some form or another, has been trying to get this story made. I came in about ten years ago, and I heard about it through Joel Viertel, who’s our lead producer, my producing partner on a lot of things, and my editor, and he had heard the story many years back in 2000 or something, and was incredibly impressed by it and wanted to kind of do whatever he could to help get it made. And he pitched it, actually, on the set of The Adjustment Bureau to Anthony Mackie and myself. And I think we both were just blown away that this was a true story.
At that point, Mackie said, we had a good relationship on Adjustment Bureau and we both wanted to work together again, “If you’re going to delve in to revise the script (because there was an existing script) and direct it, then I’m in.” So that was enough to get me interested. And I was doing other projects, so it took me until about 2016 when Niceole Levy and I sat down and I started retooling the script.
RM: How accurate is it, and how many liberties were taken?
GN: Everybody in the story had passed away years prior to when I got involved. We had eight hours of tapes from Bernard, the Anthony Mackie character, where he sat down with David Lewis Smith, who was one of the first two writers. We had an eleven-hundred page U.S. Senate transcript, there were contemporaneous articles in Jet and Ebony and so forth. So, you fill in the gaps where there are gaps. But I can say, we went through the screenplay, at one point, and said, let’s figure out which beats are rooted where we can point to it exactly on the tapes, or the congressional transcript, or legal documents or whatever, where we got the direct information or ideas to lead off of. And we found, I think, 95 beats in the story that are rooted directly. But yeah, he says, “Matt Steiner was one of my white faces who helped me purchase the banker building.” So what does that look like? You obviously have to try and fill that out.
RM: This is an inspiring film, but what about the story attracted you to it? What themes did you like about it?
GN: I mean, at root, or at first blush, it was just such an amazing story. With all of the impediments of a racist society and starting in the 30s with the Bernard character, to take that on in the way that they did, and to be so successful, was just amazing. And then there’s this amazing kind of hook, some people might call it a Hollywood hook, but I would say it’s just a hook no matter what. To think about the kind of My Fair Lady that went on to take this guy, who had no experience in banking, no experience in real estate, and kind of very quickly train him up to be their face, it managed to be a perfect mixture of something that was an incredible story that was an enormously important part of our history. But beyond that, it’s still an issue to this day. Like three months ago, the front-page article of the New York Times was talking about on tape discrimination at JP Morgan. It’s an issue. Red lining is an issue in the presidential campaign too. It’s this incredible story tied to incredibly important issues. And then, this thing that gives it a kind of heist or humor.
RM: Talk a little bit about Samuel L Jackson’s character, he’s portraying a real man and business partner too.
GN: Yes. All this stuff about his family background is true. His mother was involved in real estate, he was from a very prominent African American family, whatever that looked like in the 50s in California. His club was considered the most popular. He actually had two clubs. We focus on one in the movie, but he had another club, Club Alabam. And they were both highly popular clubs. There’s a photo that you actually saw in the movie when they’re getting the keys to the building, and Joe’s got a big smile and the cigar in his hand. And when Bernard is talking about him, he said, “Oh, he’s totally larger than life. Everyone in town knows him. He always had a cigar.” He filled that in, so you’re able to look at that picture, Bernard standing there like this, and Joe’s got a huge smile on his face. But it is very hard, just in general, to figure out enough for our characters that don’t have an extensive written record on. And I think it was made a lot harder by the fact that history, or the people that wrote history, sort of tried to erase these people; there’s nothing about them in “the white press.”
RM: Can you speak a little bit to Nia Long’s character? Eunice was a really strong force behind Bernard and him being a man of integrity.
GN: We had a decent amount on Eunice, she’s talked about extensively in the tapes. They bought a bunch of property together in downtown, they had a company together called B and E Corporation, Bernard and Eunice Corporation. It was how he purchased the banker building.
RM: They were in business more than what the movie even shows?
GN: They were in business, and at some point, they divorce. The Texas portion of the film, we brought her forward into, but they were definitely business partners in Los Angeles real estate transactions. He even talks about it in the tapes how later in life, he would constantly go back to his ex-wife for help. You take what he says, you take those records and then you sit with your actress and you say, well, how do we want to have you inhabit this role?
RM: I think there’s a turning point in the movie when he goes from just wanting to make money, to wanting to see change, he wanted to help people and that’s not the easy road.
GN: Right. And Joe warns him, if we go down this path, eventually the system is going to fight back. But I think also, it’s a part of Anthony’s character, of Bernard’s growth. He starts out in the beginning of the movie as a person who feels like, essentially, I can turn a blind eye to injustice. I can just keep to myself, I can dress in a certain way, I can wear those glasses, I’m smart and articulate and I can just use what I have and I can negotiate the racial politics. And what he finds out is, certainly in that era, at a certain point he was going to hit a brick wall, and the first brick wall he hits is when Barker dies. And that’s all rooted in really, all those people are real. And I think that was the first place where he was like, “Wow, okay, I can’t just do the normal things of keeping to myself and beat, or even challenge, this system.” And it grows, right? It grows from there to like, “All right, well, let’s buy this building that all these banks and financial institutions are in, because then they’ll have to take us seriously. Okay, we might need help with that. We might need white faces. And then let’s go the heart of Jim Crow, Texas and buy banks.” I mean, that’s him realizing that he can’t just look the other way. It’s him realizing, in steps, that he has to take bigger and bigger risks if he’s actually going to challenge the system. And of course, I don’t think it’d be true to life if the system didn’t fight back pretty hard and it definitely did.
RM: I found it interesting how the characters in the film identify what fuels us. Sam Jackson’s character pinpoints Bernard is fueled by angry, but he’s under control. That’s different than an explosive and dynamic person that doesn’t know how to channel their anger. Later he is fueled by the desire to make his Dad proud, and by social activism. Break down these layers…
GN: I think you’re a deep watcher of the film because not many people would necessarily catch the need to have validation of the father. When we filmed the scene of Anthony coming back to his house with Greg Alan Williams, who was playing his dad, right before, I asked the group to come together with me, including the little boy, and talk for a little bit before the scene. This is a little bit tangential, but I think you’ll like it. We said, this seven-year-old boy couldn’t possibly have experienced what you [Greg Alan] experienced growing up. So, can we help put him in this space of what it would have been like in the fifties. Greg told the story about driving down from the North into the South with his aunts and uncles and how they couldn’t stop at gas stations and use restrooms, so the aunts would have to say, stop, and get out and go in the field and pee. So it was a very kind of emotional moment. And then later in that day, we shot the scene on the porch where they’re smoking cigars and the dad says he’s proud of him. They have the conversation, and Anthony turns to me at one point and says, “That is the conversation that every man wishes that he could have with this dad.” I’m glad that came through. Obviously, we are driven to try and get our parents approval, and it’s made all the more pointed by the fact that his dad was just trying to protect him.
I think the idea of being fueled by anger that is under control is also something that doesn’t get talked about in film, but I think that what Sam was saying is, if you’re an angry black man, then everybody’s going to push back against you. And if you don’t show that, then you have more opportunity to go through life. But you need it inside. You need that sense of injustice or else you just accept it, right. So again, my hope is that the movie speaks more frankly to the kind of layered way that race works in the United States.
RM: What do you hope is the cultural conversation around this film and how timely it is?
GN: Obviously, the issues of discrimination still exist and red lining, but it’s also sort of a celebration and a critique of capitalism at the same time. I mean, it’s amazing what a kind of fair capitalism can do in terms of creating wealth in the country. And I do think, you need to see somebody like yourself out there doing it to believe that you can do it. But it also doesn’t work for a lot of people. Sure, the movie has African American protagonists, but I mean, there’s an awful lot of towns and non-wealthy cities in the country, where there’s a lot of struggling, where there’s a dearth of jobs, where there’s a dearth of hopefulness.
RM: Lastly let’s chat casting. We still live in a day and age where I do think, even if the script and the film is amazing, which I think it is, you still need stars. Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson were a great team together. Sam is Sam, but how much did you write for him in his character and how much did he add of his own “Samness” is you will?
GN: So, when I sat down to do my part of the rewrite, I was like, we have to get Sam Jackson for this. That’s the most iconic version of the Joe character, as I think he existed in real life. So I did everything I could to write hearing his voice in my head. And, there was very little adlibbing on the set. What Sam would do, which only Sam could do, is take the words that I wrote and change them so they would sound right coming out of his mouth.
The Banker streams on Apple+ on March 20.