One of the feature documentaries shortlisted for the Oscars is 2017’s ABACUS: TOO SMALL TO JAIL from director Steve James (HOOP DREAMS). The film tells the true story of Abacus Federal Savings, a bank catering to New York’s Chinese immigrant community that became the only U.S. institution to face criminal charges stemming from the 2008 financial crisis.
As the doc argues, while big banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America faced no punishment for their part in the crisis, prosecutors went after the small family-run business because they were an easy target to satiate the public’s demand for “justice” (YOMYOMF founder Justin Lin is developing a narrative film based the story). James spoke to Deadline about his film:
“I just thought this was an important story,” James tells Deadline. “It’s so important to understand where the justice system brought the hammer down versus where they didn’t. That made me want to venture to New York City and to Chinatown to tell this story.”
The film’s protagonists are Thomas Sung, his wife Hwei Lin and their four daughters—Vera, Jill, Chanterelle and Heather—owners of Abacus. Thomas, a Chinese immigrant himself, founded the bank in the 1980s to provide credit to fellow community members who struggled to obtain loans from traditional lenders. He identified with the character of banker George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life—extending credit to help neighbors prosper—and the bank’s low default rate on loans suggested wise stewardship.
However, in 2009, by which time daughter Jill had taken over running Abacus from her father, the bank discovered one of its loan officers had been forging information on mortgage applications and sought kickbacks from a borrower. Instead of burying the misconduct, they brought it to the attention of regulators.
“They were appalled to see that there were some irregularities going on,” James says of the family. “They thought they were doing all the right things. They weren’t complicit, they weren’t endorsing it, they weren’t encouraging it at all.”
Nevertheless, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, led by Cyrus Vance Jr., obtained an indictment against the bank and 19 employees, alleging mortgage and securities fraud and conspiracy. The film contains news footage of the indicted employees as they were subjected to a kind of ritual humiliation.
“Vance paraded these defendants down the hallway in chains,” James states, “for low-level bank fraud.”
From the get-go some legal observers questioned whether the case amounted to selective prosecution. The director sees evidence of racial bias in the handling of Abacus.
“I think Vance and his office were just insensitive to the ways in which this case and bringing it to trial was culturally insensitive,” James asserts. “I mean, the chain gang alone was an act of tremendous insensitivity and I would say racism, however unintended it might have been… They didn’t seem interested at all in understanding that bias.”
To read the full interview, go to Deadline: ‘Abacus’ Director Weighs Impact Of Oscar Shortlisted Doc On Chinatown Bank Snared In Suspect Prosecution