Acclaimed filmmaker Steve James has built his reputation primarily on the strength of Chicago-oriented documentaries, among them Hoop Dreams (1994), The Interrupters (2011) and Life Itself (2014). But he finds himself in the Oscar race this year with a story that took him from the Second City to the first.
In Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, he explored the case of Abacus Federal Savings, a bank catering to New York’s Chinese immigrant community that became the only U.S. lender to face criminal charges stemming from the 2008 financial crisis. Large-scale institutions like Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase escaped criminal prosecution for their role in the nationwide mortgage meltdown, but with comparatively tiny Abacus it was another matter. Prosecutors, the film argues, unfairly chose to make an example out of it.
“If you were going to pick a bank to pick on, a family-owned company wedged between a couple of noodle shops in Chinatown is about as easy a target as you can pick,” author Matt Taibbi observes in the film. “Too big to fail turns into small enough to jail.”
“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.”
In the end, a jury acquitted the bank and its employees of all charges. James interviewed Vance well after the verdict, and learned the Manhattan D.A. didn’t regret the prosecution.
“He’s not backing down. He says, ‘I don’t think we treated this bank any differently than we would an Indian bank or a South American bank,’ which is a very interesting answer. It’s like, okay, but not a ‘white’ bank?” James points out. “His answer is very revealing in unintended ways.”
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, a return theatrical engagement for a film whose original run came last summer. It debuted on the PBS program Frontline in September. In December, Abacus made the Oscar documentary shortlist, a feat James also achieved with Life Itself.
“It is great to get shortlisted and I’m really thankful for this film to get that distinction because it’s just another way to help it stay in the public view,” James tells Deadline. “Whether this turns into a nomination or not, who knows. I’ve been on the shortlist a number of times in the past and it hasn’t resulted in a nomination. So I’m not holding my breath about any of that. I’m just choosing to be thankful for the fact that we made it this far.”
The film has made the Sungs heroes in the eyes of many viewers, because they refused to knuckle under to a prosecution they felt was unjust, spending $10 million of family money to defend their reputation.
“I think they’ve been really heartened by the response to the film,” James reveals. “A number of people have opened up accounts at Abacus that don’t even live in Chinatown in support of them, which is just fabulous—from small deposits to larger deposits, people saying, ‘I just really believe in you as a bank and what you’re trying to do in your community and I want to put my money in your bank.’ So that’s been a really gratifying thing.”
As for Cyrus Vance Jr., he won reelection as Manhattan District Attorney in November, running unopposed. However, his election was by no means unanimous because some write-in candidates drew support. Among them, the main characters in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.
As James notes, “The Sungs got 22 write-in votes.”