When it was time for my father to buy sausage in the 1970s, there was no mistaking that it was coming from Mrs. Wilhemina Bennett. A parishioner at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church where my father was the pastor, Ms. Bennett, a senior citizen, had the audacity to start a sausage company — a Black-owned business — when many would have thought it unreasonable.
He regularly endorsed it from the pulpit. As a result, no one in Pinn Memorial chose Jimmy Dean over Bennett’s Sausage.
When it was time to put up the red, black and green wallpaper my brother and I insisted on having in our bedroom, Pop didn’t mull over who would do it. Everyone understood that the papering was going to be done — not just in his home but also in homes of other church members — by Deacon William Mosley.
That’s how it was with everything. If it was going to be done — whether it was dentistry, insurance or whatever — Pop was going to find a Black person, preferably in the church, to do it. If f he couldn’t, he was going to use the reference of a member to find someone — preferably African-American and Baptist — to give his money to.
This is the sort of Black mercantilism that came to mind a few weeks ago as a I watched a screening of “The Banker,” a true story about Black self-determination that you should see but might not get to.
Formerly scheduled to be released today, “The Banker” tells the inspirational story of how Bernard Garrett Sr. (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) brilliantly circumvented institutional racism to became millionaires by buying real estate in Los Angeles and banks in Jim Crow-era Texas. As banks owners, they immediately began giving loans to Blacks who had the credit score but not the color to qualify for wealth-building life changing loans.
So well-liked was the film that Apple chose it as its first release for its film division right in time for awards season. Unfortunately, it is in limbo now due to Cynthia Garrett’s and Sheila Garrett’s allegations that their half-brother Bernard Garrett Jr., the son of the film’s protagonist and co-producer of the film, sexually assaulted them in the 1970s; Bernard Garrett Jr. denies the allegations.
The movie focuses on Bernard Garrett Sr.’s life with his son’s mother (played by Nia Long) who helped the patriarch build his fortune but whom he later divorced. There is no mention in the film of his relationship to his daughters’ mother, who is white.
When a white banker finds out that Bernard Garrett Sr. and Morris have gamed the system to buy their banks, he does what he can to bring it down — not at all implausible considering that this story took place decades after the destruction of Black Wall Street. Eventually, the feds get involved and take them down, but just momentarily.
If you’re wondering whether or not this is a story that may or may not interest you, director George Nofli in interviews says he has stuck as closely to the historical accounts of Bernard Garrett Sr.’s life as he possibly can, while, of course, taking the cinematic liberties that all directors take in retelling a story.
But don’t take his word or mine on whether or not this might be for you. Rather, consider the words of the protagonist.
“When I was a little boy, I realized that the whites have controlled the destiny of Blacks for many, many years. And the only way they control the destiny of a man and a people is to control the money,” Bernard Garrett Sr. says on an archived recording. “Until such time as we control more banks, more money, we will always be at the mercy of the white man. I don’t care what you say, how you do it or where you come from, that’s the way it is in the United States.”
African Americans can’t seem to find the sweet spot when it comes to our depiction in movies. Some of us are weary of the slavery and “We Shall Overcome” films, despite the fact that our history as enslaved people and in the struggle for civil rights is older than America itself.
Then, there are the films that so often dehumanize African Americans and strip away humanity. Oftentimes they are characterized by the murder, mayhem, pathology and hopelessness — “Queen & Slim” comes to mind. They have more in common with ‘70s Black exploitation films like “Super Fly” and “Across 110th Street.”
“The Banker” falls into neither category.
To the contrary, if there is another Madam C.J. Walker out there — a young Black girl looking to follow in the footsteps of Walker, a millionaire before the Depression — a film like “The Banker” might help fuel that ambition.
If there is a young African-American male who wants to build a bank account and gain the prestige of someone like Reginald Lewis, founder of the first billion-dollar company owned by an African-American, seeing the well-acted story of Bernard Garrett Sr. refusing to yield or give quarter as he relentlessly pursues the American dream might inspire him.
This movie traffics in that type of positivity.