Greetings again from the darkness. The ‘long con’ usually doesn’t work for movies since the story must be told within a 2 hour window. However, writer-director Georg Nolfi and co-writers Brad Kane, Niceole R Levy, David Lewis Smith and Stan Younger deliver a story inspired by the true actions and events of men who found a clever way to circumvent a system designed to prevent people of color from succeeding in business.
Anthony Mackie puts on glasses and a few sharp suits to play Bernard Garrett. We see young Bernard as a shoeshine boy in Willis, Texas in 1939, eavesdropping on the businessmen as they chat about high finance, and then taking notes on subjects such as return on investment and calculating property value. Young Bernard grows into a math whiz adult … one whose ambition is hampered only by the color of his skin. He has a chip on his shoulder and is intent on proving the world wrong. His supportive wife Eunice (Nia Long) introduces him to Los Angeles entrepreneur Joe Morris (Samuel L Jackson), whose enterprising approach and bold lifestyle both complements and contrasts with Bernard’s ambition and straight-laced personality.
Bernard realized early on that in order to build the real estate portfolio he envisioned … one that could provide opportunity for others in the black community … he needed the face of a white man to handle the negotiations. Initially that white face belonged to Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney), and the business grew quickly. Things really take off for the Garrett – Morris partnership when they begin training Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) how to be the face of the company. Bernard’s shrewd business and financial sense flies over Steiner’s head, but with practice, he learns to “act” the part. Steiner’s training involves everything from golf to math to dinner table etiquette.
It was the late 1950’s and early 1960’s … racism was rampant. The Garrett – Morris story plays like an underground rebellion, and one that is surprisingly fun to watch unfold on screen. While the two men built their personal wealth, their actions also helped fight against racism and inequality. They ended up owning 177 buildings, and things might have continued on had Garrett not, against Morris’ better judgment, decided they were strong enough to change things back in his hometown of Willis, Texas. Morris labeled Garrett’s plan as “social activism” rather than business. Their real estate venture morphed into banking so that blacks could have access to business and personal loans. What seemed like a minor misstep from Steiner, blew the wheels off and created a worst case scenario for Garrett and Morris.
Mackie, Hoult and Jackson are all fun to watch here, with Mr. Jackson offering up many of his patented reaction shots and laughs. If anything, the filmmakers play things a bit too safe with the story-telling. It’s all a bit too slick and glossy, given the times. Sure, it’s a pleasure to see what amounts to a classic car show on the street, but it’s difficult to imagine things went quite this smoothly right up until they didn’t. This is an Apple TV production, and its release was delayed due to controversy surrounding Garrett’s second wife (not depicted in the film) and his son, who was originally listed as a Producer. An “Inspired by true events” banner to open a film typically means some dramatic license was taken, which we can assume was the case here. Regardless, the story of Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris and Matt Steiner is fascinating, and worthy of being told.