Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism.
That double purpose is the quiet genius of James’ latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The central story recounts the stranger-than-fiction courtroom saga of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned Chinatown bank that is still the only bank indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 American financial crisis. But James’ priorities are less about the courtroom minutiae than the case’s reverberations through the owner Thomas Sung, his family, and their misunderstood immigrant community.
What’s compelling about the case is not whether Abacus is innocent or guilty, but why it matters in the first place. When other globally known banks like Chase, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan were causing trillions in damages and receiving a slap on the wrist, Abacus was a small-time community bank dragged through the mud. By the end, the Sungs paid nearly $10 million in litigation fees, and as the film shows, they have almost nothing to show for it.