Sunday, February 11, 2018
OSCARS 2018: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017)
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” at all. The film is apparently the latest from Steven James, the critically acclaimed documentarian behind “Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself.” See, now I feel guilty for not keeping up with things.
“Abacus” returns us to the subprime mortgage crisis, when banks giving out mortgages to people who could not pay them contributed to the American economy heading into a recession. While most of the banks and people responsible for this were given government buy-outs and golden parachutes, one was taken to court. Abacus Federal Saving Banks, a small family-owned bank operating out of and primarily serving New York's Chinatown community, was the only financial institution in the fallout of the crisis to face criminal charges. James' film chronicles the family behind the bank, the court case, and shows both sides of whether Abacus deserved to be made an example of.
James' film isn't just about a family going through a trying time. It's about how tight-knit immigrant communities can be and how this can lead to persecution. We see someone connected to the case, a legal expert in Chinatown, talk to a woman who was unfairly ticketed for something. The doc's central image – a chain of Abacus workers hand-cuffed together and marched into court – can't help but make the case look like a small racial community being unfairly oppressed. James tries to add some ambiguity to the story, interviewing jurors and lawyers who believed Abacus was rightly prosecuted, but it's clear where his alliances fall. Considering what mega-corporations got away with, it was odd that Abacus was the only bank singled out. As hard as James work to put a human face on the court case, the legalese behind the case is sometimes a little tricky to get your head around.
It seems that, among people more familiar with James' overall output, “Abacus” garnered a somewhat mixed reception. Some praised it, others called it inessential. I found the family at the center of the film's story to be charming. Allowing this group of people a chance to express themselves, even while their family was in crisis, is definitely the film's best quality. Otherwise, it does strike me as a fairly routine documentary. I wasn't familiar with the court case beforehand, adding a little suspense to the movie. If you do know how things turned out, you probably won't be super compelled to check this out. But, hey, I still liked it well enough. [7/10]