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Rob Edelman: The Best Of The Best

Five excellent and provocative films have earned nominations for Best Documentary Feature Academy Awards. One of them is FACES PLACES. Its co-director is Agnes Varda and it just may win, if only to honor this legendary eighty-something filmmaker. However, one in particular stands out. It is ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL. I cited it in a review this past spring when it opened theatrically and it is well-worth re-focusing on, given its quality and its content.

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL transcends the specifics of its subject in that it examines the misuse of power in contemporary America and who is singled out for the alleged misuse of power. It is an account of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-operated federally chartered bank that for over three decades has worked out of New York City’s Chinatown. The heart of the film centers on what occurred in 2012 when nineteen individuals from the bank were charged with mortgage and securities fraud. 

One reason why ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL sticks with me is its director, Steve James. A quarter-century ago, James made HOOP DREAMS, which lingers as one of the most potent documentaries that I have ever seen. HOOP DREAMS charts the stories of two inner-city Chicago basketball wannabes who long for athletic accomplishment. I reviewed HOOP DREAMS in the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide and cited it as a “searing commentary on our social system, the indomitable strength of the family unit, and the unpredictability of life.”

There is an undeniable similarity between the content and life stories in HOOP DREAMS and ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL. Both films center on Americans who are “victims.” And they are minorities. In ABACUS..., James centers on Thomas Sung, the bank’s founder and chairman. Sung was born in Shanghai over eighty years ago. He arrived in the U.S. in his teens, studied law, and eventually realized his dream of operating a bank in the Chinese community. And what James does is connect Mr. Sung to a beloved character in an all-time-great American film. That would be George Bailey, played by James Stewart in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Mr. Sung is George Bailey-like in that he is presented as a dedicated individual who yearns to genuinely help those in his midst. Only here, he is aging and his daughters replace him. However, the entire Sung family must deal with the indictment.           

At the heart of the film is the meaning of truth. What is truth? Is the Sung clan being isolated, being scapegoated? If this is so, why is this happening? Could it be that the indictment is in any way related to the ethnicity of the Sungs? Is there racism and an anti-Asian bias at play here? Is the bottom line: Why do the members of a Chinese family somehow believe they are capable to operating a bank? Why do they not stick to laundries and restaurants?

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL is at its core a real-life drama and a depiction of the way in which one clan comes together and sticks together during a very traumatic time. But the film really is not so much about the behavior of those who toiled at the bank. What is emphasized is that Abacus was the lone bank whose administrators actually were prosecuted in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crisis. In this regard, the film’s title-- ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL-- reverberates.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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