I liked every documentary I’ve ever seen directed by Steve James, from his epic-length, groundbreaking Hoop Dreams to his recent Roger Ebert biography, Life Itself. But not even in his anti-gang violence piece The Interrupters did James ever seem to encourage his audience to feel pure, unfiltered outrage the way he does with his latest work, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the devastating story of a small, family-run bank in New York’s Chinatown that became the only bank in the nation to face actual criminal charges in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. While the Wall Street big shots such as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo were deemed “too big to fail” and handed millions of dollars in bailout funds, the Justice Department targeted the Sung family business, Abacus, with deep roots in the community since the 1950s, precisely because they had no D.C. connections or anywhere to hide.
With ready parallels made between company founder Thomas Sung and It’s A Wonderful Life character George Bailey, the Chinese-American lawyer-turned-banker was able to make loans within his community, which had a reputation of being distrustful of financial institutions. By serving the grossly underserved immigrant population, Abacus grew and expanded, making the Sung family a pillar in the community.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the story behind the company’s persecution is that it was sparked when an irregularity was discovered and reported to the proper authorities, by the bank itself. It turned out one of the staff mortgage managers was taking bribes to approve loans, it was discovered by another staff member, but the timing of the incident made them, in many ways, the perfect target for the Justice Department. The film even floats the theory that the Sung’s foreignness made them an even better target, especially if the government could paint the cause of the banking collapse on outside forces. Forced to defend themselves against what turned into a five-year battle, the Sungs risked financial ruin, health issues, and a loss of reputation that they feared would never come back in the wake of a targeted media frenzy.
Without giving too much away, one of the reasons Abacus is so infuriating as a story is how easy it was for the company’s legal team to eviscerate the government’s case and witnesses by simply using the truth as their defense. The Justice Department also underestimated the support Abacus had in the community, which rose to its support like you will never likely see happen again for a banking institution. Director James and his team are not attempting to blow open the truth about the financial crisis that began in 2008; Abacus is the story of a scapegoat that refused to lie back and accept that role, even at great cost ($10 million in legal fees).
If there was one area I wish James had dug just a little deeper, it was finding out just who or what was driving the government’s railroading of the Sung family bank and what their motivations might have been for doing so. Even a face-to-face interview with New York County D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr., reveals so little that it’s almost not worth including. Someone in his office clearly thought they had a case, so for them to have fumbled so profoundly, it begs the question, “How did you screw this one up so badly?” Or perhaps the purpose was the headline, the perception that something was being done, someone was answering for this horrible event that almost crippled in the nation. Whatever the reason Abacus became a target, the results are the same: an incident that nearly destroyed a business and ruined a family. Abacus is another example of James’ exceptional storytelling and his ability to generate (and sometimes manipulate) emotions in this audience with precision.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Steve James and producer Mark Mitten will be present for audience Q&As after screenings on Friday, June 16 at 8:15pm (moderated by yours truly); Saturday, June 17 at 7:45pm; Sunday, June 18 at 5:15pm; and Tuesday, June 20 at 8pm.