On the face of it, a ‘based on a true story’ film about two guys who decide to set themselves up as landlords sounds like it might make for fairly dull viewing.
But, when I tell you that the true story is set in America in the 1950s and 60s – and that the two guys in question are African Americans – you might begin to appreciate that there’s more to it than initially meets the eye.
In this Apple original, finally available after some protracted – and rather unpleasant – legal wrangles, Anthony Mackie stars as Bernard Garrett, a maths prodigy who, since childhood, has hankered after a career in real estate. He’s well aware, however, that the only way a man of his colour is likely to set foot in the swanky properties he longs to own, is if he’s wearing a janitor’s overalls. Undeterred, he sets to with a will and gradually begins to amass a portfolio. When he spots an opportunity to acquire the buildings where one of Los Angeles’ biggest banks is situated, he approaches wealthy club owner Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) to help raise the necessary finance.
Joe himself owns quite a few properties around the city but has learned from experience that, even in liberal LA, nobody is going to allow two black guys to get away with something as audacious as openly owning such fancy real estate. So they hit on a plan: hiring Bernard’s employee and friend, the handsome, hapless and – crucially – white Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to be the visible ‘face’ of the enterprise. After some intensive coaching – which includes memorising complicated figures and (really important this) learning to play golf – the ruse works like a dream and soon Bernard and Joe (and Matt) are doing very nicely, thank you.
But then Bernard pays a visit to his father in his Texas hometown, and notices a nice little neighbourhood bank, all ready for the taking. Why not just buy the place? Then he can offer loans to the many black families in the area that can’t currently enjoy such a luxury. Joe is against the notion from the start, but Bernard manages to persuade him. Once again, they’ll put Matt in there as a figurehead. It worked before, right? But all three men are to discover that what works in Los Angeles just doesn’t fly in Texas…
The shameful truths behind this story are impossible to ignore. Certainly, for that first transaction, Bernard and Joe’s only crime is that their skin is the wrong colour. Think about that for a moment. Even in the supposedly progressive 1960s, two black men could not be seen to own expensive property. That is, although they could legally own it, in truth they couldn’t do so openly, because if it ever came to light, hundreds of horrified customers would close their accounts and run screaming in the direction of another bank. Kind of puts the great American Dream into sobering perspective, doesn’t it?
If I’ve made the film sound po-faced, it’s not. The screenplay, co-written by director George Nolfi, successfully mines what vestiges of humour there are in the situation, particularly in the early stretches when it all seems like a bit of a lark. Jackson’s caustic one-liners are particularly good. Of course, the treatment that Bernard and Joe subsequently receive at the hands of the American judicial system is anything but funny, though hearing that the case eventually helped to change the law does provide some consolation.
So if you’re ever going to watch a movie about two would-be landlords, this is definitely the one to go for.