Financial Risk: Steve James Banks on Chinatown Community Bank and Finds Political Returns
Steve James has a habit of sticking up for the little guy, as is evidenced by his many films on troubled youth – Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Stevie – as well as his cinematic celebration of a major supporter of directorial little guys in his end of life profile of Roger Ebert, Life Itself. So, it comes as little surprise to find that his latest, ABACUS: Small Enough To Jail, sees him bunker down with Thomas Sung, his devout family and the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a modest six branch bank which they dutifully operate at the center of New York’s Chinatown, and most curiously, the only financial institution to be criminally indicted following the 2008 mortgage meltdown.
After all the non-sense that’s gone on in the financial sector over the last couple decades, banking on a bank to serve up cinema worthy moral fiber seems like risky business, but James admirably, if not always entertainingly, defends the honor of the Sungs by getting in close with access galore, revealing the altruism within, and staying through the end of the five year mortgage fraud trial that threatened to shutter the business they’ve built from the ground up. Remarkably, James bets a on a bank and makes out with a righteous winner.
Long before Thomas Sung founded the Abacus Federal Savings Bank back in 1984 as a boon to the Chinese American community whom he ached to serve, he was a highly successful lawyer and real estate developer, and before that, a young Chinese immigrant desperately seeking financial help in a city full of reluctant-to-loan-to-immigrant banks. In the early 80s he found himself no longer fulfilled by his legal work and wanted to give back to his community by providing a financial institution committed to not only loaning when it benefits the bank, but more importantly, when it benefits the commonwealth. So unlike Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase or any other “Too Big To Fail” financial institutions, it’s not surprising to hear that when it was internally discovered that several of its loan handlers were committing low-level mortgage fraud, they notified the proper investigative authorities of the situation in hopes of rooting out the problem employees. What they didn’t expect was that Abacus would itself become the New York County District Attorney’s target of investigation.
Arriving late to the case, James outlines the facts from each angle via reporters and news clips and manages to catch up with nearly all of the key players – not only Thomas and his family, including his daughters Jill, Abacus’ President & CEO, and Chanterelle, former Assistant District Attorney whom resigned from the department following the indictment against her family’s company, but those on the other side of the trial as well, most notably accusing District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. and Polly Greenberg, the Chief of Major Economic Crimes Bureau in DA’s office. Each shed more light on the case, revealing both the blood thirsty perspective of the prosecutors and the congenially conflicted personalities within the Sung family itself.
But what cuts through the judicial fog and lines the undercarriage of the obviously misguided political attack on Abacus and the Sung family, whom many in the Chinese American community considered the embodiment of the American Dream, is a deeper question: What exactly are the societal functions of financial institutions in today’s world?
As the rich get richer and minorities continue to suffer the untold consequences of race in a landscape strewn with injustices, ABACUS: Small Enough To Jail tragically and urgently recalls those famous lines uttered between Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson back in 1974: “The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?” “They do in Chinatown.”
Reviewed on September 11th at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – TIFF Docs Programme. 90 Minutes