Update: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail lost the Best Documentary Oscar to Icarus, but don’t let that convince you not to see this important movie!
The opening scene of director Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail speaks to the way cinema acts as a dream-fodder. Thomas Sung and his wife Hwei Lin watch It’s a Wonderful Life, an annual tradition for them, and reflect on how inspiring they find James Stewart’s George Bailey, who lends money to disenfranchise minority groups, as well as young, burgeoning families so that they may carve out their own slice of America and become homeowners. For the Songs, this movie, in part, inspired them to open the Abacus Federal Savings Bank of Chinatown in New York City, so that, like George Bailey, they could help immigrant families pursue the American Dream. “I wish this story could end in the same way as It’s a Wonderful Life, but in reality, it’s not that simple,” Thomas Sung, says wearily. And then we learn that during the 2008 financial crisis the relatively small Abacus Bank was the only bank to face criminal charges, acting as a scapegoat for the likes of J.P. Morgan Chase and other large financial institutions, which were deemed “too big to fail.”
The Best Documentary category is arguably one of the more significant prizes for how a win, and even a nomination, can bolster the popularity of small films that often receive limited theatrical releases. James, whose 1995 landmark documentary Hoop Dreams was nominated for Best Editing but failed to receive a nod for Best Documentary (check out our list of Oscar’s worst Documentary Omissions) was finally honored this year with his nomination for Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.
James’ movie charts the brutal six-year litigation between the Sung family and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. James’ film is particularly notable for being the only entry in this year’s Oscar competition to feature an Asian perspective. This general lack of presence is disheartening but even still, the Academy could not have picked a better movie to represent the Asian-American demographic: James offsets the myth of submissiveness that has come to plague the “model minority”–the Sung family, rounded out by three sharp-witted daughters (two are lawyers who run the bank for their retired father, and the third is a doctor) refuse to take the charges lying down. In fact, to the Sung family, calling them the “David” in this David vs. Goliath match probably fails to give them proper credit.
As James’ documentary shows, the evidence against the bank is virtually nonexistent—the case rests on the misconduct of a specific few loan officers who were involved in shady procedures. Despite the Songs reporting their loan officers and fully cooperating with the Feds, the government’s response was to prosecute the small, community-focused, family-run bank.
Tactics employed by the prosecutors, including placing the older members of the bank in a chain gang are intensely provocative. But the true effectiveness of the documentary rests on how James humanizes the Songs while the prosecutors attempt to show them as just another bank trying to get away with fraud. In portraying the Songs as the heroes, James audaciously reconfigures both the racial profiling of Asian people in the media and the understandable anger and distrust towards banks in post-2008 society.
The Songs make great subjects and it is a sight to behold watching their family dynamic, both professionally as they prepare their case diligently and intelligently, and personally. One of the most memorable moments in the film makes for a bittersweet tableau. First, Thomas gets a haircut at his usual spot, and the conversation between him and his barber becomes a lyrical reflection on aging and legacy. Then, during a meeting with the lawyers, Thomas interrupts a heated argument between two of his daughters by complaining about the dryness of his sandwich. The two scenes act as reminders of the physical and psychological toll of the trial, but also of the unwavering bond shared by the family. The angry large-scale indictment of the banking system, as well as institutionalized prejudice, makes way for a heartfelt small-scale study of the family.
In a time when it is increasingly difficult to trust those in power, it is important to perhaps cast a spotlight onto those who use their position for good. Through the Songs and their good intentions, James sets forth an idea that is urgently inspiring. Rather than hopelessly bemoan the institution, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail highlights the people within the banking system who attempt to make a positive difference.