EXCLUSIVE: The Banker co-writer/director George Nolfi has gone on the record for the first time to correct what he said are false statements that have become a part of the narrative about a film that became a hot potato once Cynthia Garrett – daughter of the film’s protagonist, Bernard Garrett Sr – accused her half-brother Bernard Garrett Jr of molesting her and her sister decades ago, charges he denied.
The controversy has overshadowed the movie’s inspirational story of two black millionaires who secretly used a white front man so they could buy banks and give loans to blacks shut out of the chance to build wealth in Jim Crow-era Texas. The film was on a charmed track as Apple’s first theatrical release that was supposed to happen this Friday. Nolfi, Anthony Mackie (who plays Garrett Sr), Samuel L. Jackson (who plays his partner, Joe Morris) and others made numerous appearances in tastemaker and awards-season screenings, but everything ground to a halt when Apple became aware of the allegations. The distributor canceled the AFI premiere hours before curtain, and indefinitely postponed the release ostensibly to sort out the allegations, and that includes its run on Apple’s streaming service.
Nolfi said he could not comment on the sexual assault allegations other than to say he and the film’s backers and cast were blindsided by them. He said they immediately brought them to Apple’s attention when Ms. Garrett began posting on social media. But Nolfi wanted to defend a film he said deserves to be seen. And contrary to Cynthia Garrett’s assertion, Nolfi denied Garrett Jr served any creative role in shaping the picture. Nolfi said that Garrett Jr’s involvement amounted to a rights deal that was required for the filmmakers to gain access to the research that informs the period story.
“I want to correct the record on how the movie’s narrative was created,” Nolfi said. “For better or worse, when the movie was pulled out of AFI, it became a worldwide news story and 100-plus outlets repeated a claim about the integrity of the story that is just not accurate. That’s what I need to correct on behalf of the writers, producers and the 1000-plus people who believed in this movie.”
Garrett Jr had been part of those early buzz-building screenings and Q&A sessions; he and his credit disappeared immediately after the allegations were made, even as he vociferously denied them). Nolfi said it was Garrett Jr who made the decision to step back.
“Bernard Jr was definitely part of the press and he had a co-producer credit as part of his original rights deal,” Nolfi said. “When this happened, he basically said, and this is as close to a quote as I can get, ‘This was never about me, this was always about my father’s life and legacy. I don’t want what’s going on now to taint the movie. So take my name off the movie.’ He said it as soon as he was told about the posts and we thought it was the appropriate thing to do. We felt it was important to keep the focus on the movie, but yes, that was from him. People are confused [by coverage of the turbulence] and I hope there can be some clarity. If you are asking me about the specific charges, I can only say it’s not appropriate for me to comment on potentially legal and private family matters that are unrelated to the film.”
Cynthia Garrett is a lawyer who has hosted shows on VH1, Fox and NBC. In books she has self-published, she has dealt with overcoming sexual assault, and in previous comments said she and members of her family feel doubly victimized from being excluded from the narrative or even having input in the film. She has said her mother, Linda Marie Garrett, was omitted and she speculated it was because the half-brother she has accused had the creative influence to make them disappear.
Nolfi said that assertion was provably false, and that Linda wasn’t depicted because his earlier wife, Eunice Garrett, helped Garrett Sr became a millionaire businessman in Los Angeles, and when he bought the Texas banks. Nolfi said Eunice (played in the movie by Nia Long) was extended to the film’s climax because adding a new character would have been cumbersome to the film’s wrap-up.
Nolfi said what he is fighting for now is for the film to get released. He said it tells a worthy untold historical story about a black man standing up to a racist system, one that Garrett Sr best sums up here in his own words that were part of eight hours of audiotapes that the late entrepreneur made in 1995. Deadline was given permission to use this one clip.
Reached for comment, Cynthia Garrett was blunt: “I do believe my mom is close to finally speaking. She has been pushed far enough in all of this. I am sorry they all worked so hard to make a movie and because my 4-year-old sister was forced into intercourse and I was molested at 7 by the film’s co-producer and originator we have ruined everyone’s night out. Positive empowerment for people of color would be to honor women of color. Apple certainly has by pulling the film.
“My mom, Linda Garrett, was Bernard Sr’s wife of 16 years,” she said. “They married in California in 1962. She was his partner, co-owner of the Bankers Building in downtown Los Angeles, co-owner of all the banks in Texas, the mother to 6 of his kids, his friend till the day he died, and one of the ‘white’ faces that often sat in his boardrooms. Black women come in many shades. Guess that reality got swept under the rug when Bernie Jr had to hide us for fear of his dirty secrets coming to light. #TIMESUP. However, the truth is that no movie is worth having been dragged through the mud like this because the person that sexually abused us as children decided to also rape us of our life story with our father so he could be a movie producer. WOW. Rather than argue back and forth like children it is odd that nobody has ever seen fit to call, apologize, and ask for the truth. Interesting when only the TRUTH will set you free.”
In a statement of denial issued to Deadline, Garrett Jr said: ““My half-sisters Cynthia and Sheila have accused me of molesting them in the early 1970s, when I was a teenager of about 15. This simply never happened. Period. What did happen is that I told my father when I discovered that their mother Linda was cheating on him, and they have always blamed me for the break-up that followed. What did happen is that Cynthia asked my father – twice – to give her the right to make a movie of his life story, and twice he turned her down, and instead decided to entrust those rights to me and a friend of mine. These charges against me are deeply humiliating and frustrating because I can never prove how false they are. I can only hope that people will keep an open mind, and though I forgive my sisters and bear them no ill-will, I do hope that people will educate themselves on who Cynthia is – and why she might make these accusations right now – before they take her words as truth. For myself, the best I could do was remove my name from the film and step away so as not to tarnish my father’s Legacy, as honoring him and what he stood for was all I ever wanted to do.”
Nolfi and producer Joel Viertel had every legal right to turn Garrett Sr’s life into a film. Even though Nolfi didn’t really become involved rewriting and directing until 2016, the long trail on the project goes back to 1995, when Garrett Sr recorded details of his exceptional life in audiotape interviews conducted by David Lewis Smith, with Bernard Garrett Jr in the room. I was able to hear some of the recordings on which Garrett Sr explained how he and Morris became the shadow owners of the banks, posing as janitors or chauffeurs to check up on Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), the white man who pretended to be the bank owner but who followed their orders. Garrett Sr, his son and Smith formed New Day Productions for the purpose of using those tapes to get a movie deal.
Viertel optioned those rights in 2012, along with two scripts written by Smith and Stan Younger. The movie was also informed by 1400 pages of congressional hearings on federally insured banks in 1965; transcripts from the appeal by Garrett Sr and Morris after they were exposed as the real owners and sentenced to several years in prison for fraud; and magazine articles written in 1965.
Contrary to what Cynthia Garrett said, Nolfi maintained that the research barely mentions Linda Garrett or that she played a significant role in Garrett Sr’s wealth-building and purchase of the Texas banks. She also does not come up in the congressional transcripts, while Eunice is mentioned 10 times.
Nolfi said that is consistent with the eight hours of audiotapes that don’t mention Linda until around 1969 — when he was released from prison — as Garrett Sr’s recounted his life. I heard a snippet referring to Linda that wasn’t kind to her.
“I’m not hoping for anything here other than to make it very clear that the way the movie was constructed without any interference or guidance from Bernard Jr,” said Nolfi, who showed to Deadline the contract signed by Garrett Sr, along with an 80-point plot summation with specific references to where each major moment in the plot came from. Most of it was from Garrett Sr’s own words. “[Garrett Jr] was a rights holder who I think we met for lunch one time before production,” Nolfi said. “I think I have four emails from him, where I am asking for photographs of his mom, stuff like that. There was no story shaping from him.
“Our explicit goal was to use primary sources, and not the recollections of people who by and large were not there, or were too young at the time of the events in the story,” Nolfi said. “The beats of the story were dramatized from information that came from Bernard’s own lips, or from senators and responses from Bernard and other people from a congressional hearing. I want to correct the record about the integrity of the story, that is my sole goal here. Of course, I want the movie to be released in the best possible way. How that happens is something above my pay grade.”
Several execs I spoke with were hard-pressed to figure out a happy ending if Apple remains the distributor of a film that has established a new chapter in the Twilight Zone that often awaits Oscar season films. The craziness has ranged from the time three U.S. senators assailed the makers of Zero Dark Thirty and killed its Best Picture chances after the pols railed against the depiction of “enhanced interrogation” unearthing intel that led to Osama bin Laden; Nate Parker’s frontrunner film The Birth of a Nation was upended by decades-old rape charges even though he was acquitted; scandal-scarred Kevin Spacey was replaced by Christopher Plummer at great expense on All the Money in the World, with reshoots taking place weeks before that film’s release.
The Banker is a new one in that the film has become engulfed in controversy before the public even got to see it, for an alleged transgression that has nothing to do with the events depicted onscreen. It is a collision of a #MeToo moment with the newness of a theatrical distributor backed by a massive global consumer brand that could be harmed by seeming insensitive to sexual assault. Asked today for an update, Apple continues to stick with a weeks-old statement made after its AFI pullout. Are they actively investigating Cynthia Garrett’s charges? Who knows? Then there is the traditional but sometimes dicey practice of the way Hollywood makes the fact-based films that are awards season staples.
Dramatic license is so common that no distributor would halt a movie because of a complaint about a person being left out. This is all about the molestation allegations, which have little to do with the empowerment story told by Nolfi and cohorts.
One wonders if the situation with Cynthia Garrett might have been discoverable – after all, she discussed an assault in a book she wrote and in a YouTube clip I saw from several years ago, she said she and her sister had been molested by a relative, but she did not identify him by name. Could vetting have averted this crisis? Possibly, but on a modest-budget movie like this — the pic’s budget is around $11 million — most of that effort is limited to ensuring there are clearances for those depicted in the film, and here, many of the major characters have died.
Nolfi said that Garrett Sr’s partner Morris had a family that isn’t in the film, adding it would be unwieldy to cover off every relative. That very thing imperiled eventual Oscar Best Picture winner Green Book after a brother of Dr. Don Shirley called the film “a symphony of lies,” even though Deadline unearthed audiotapes from the late Shirley and Tony Lip that corroborated every disputed plot point.
“The chain of title is anyone you are portraying in the movie, who is alive,” Nolfi explained. “There is chain of title to the scripts and the ability to use the tapes and then there is the life rights to people who were alive. When the project was started, Bernard was alive. You had to have his rights. Eunice clearly the person who was with Bernard Sr. all the way up to when they first moved to Los Angeles, which the movie compresses to 1954 but was actually in the ‘40s. She is mentioned in the congressional testimony and in Bernard’s actual recordings as being heavily involved in the Banker Building. In fact, he says, ‘I called my wife and said, you take over everything from here.’ She had the cleaning service which cleaned the building, but the implication was she was sort of the manager.
“That is what you have to do,’ Nolfi said. “Bernard Sr had I believe 10 children and many of them were born after the events of this story. Everybody’s recollections are going to be different and there are people who weren’t around at the time of the story. It gets very complicated and we wanted to end the story with basically the system crashing down on [Garrett Sr and Morris] and them going to prison. Then there’s a little piece at the end. What we were looking at is, how do we tell the incredible story of what these two guys did? There’s obviously still racism today, but back then it was enshrined in law and custom and practice, and this was all about what they did through incredible ingenuity and risk-taking, to turn that system on its head and in the process change the world. That was our focus and the scripts always ended with prison and a little afterword scene of them getting out of prison. Even in the early scripts from the 1990s.”
As for fact-based films taking creative license, Nolfi said he has seen many recent celebrated films take greater liberties than he did.
“That’s how everybody does it,” he said. “I love the movie Hidden Figures, and think it was important that it got made. It pointed people to a truth that had been hidden for years. But, those three women did not ride to work every day. They were not close friends. The main character said in print she didn’t really think they faced much racism at NASA. The events that were dramatized to take place from 1960-61, to the John Glenn mission [in 1962], when they actually took place over a 12-year period. Not only were they compressed, segregation ended at NASA in ’58 or ’59, and they just ignored that and compressed it all and put it in ’60-’61. That’s a movie that says, based on a true story. Walk the Line, there was an issue over how an earlier wife was portrayed and minimized. BlacKkKlansman, same thing, and Argo, where the whole climax of the movie is invented. And by the way, these are all movies I really like.
“You need that in the movie,” Nolfi said. “You don’t fault anyone for that and you don’t have an effective Hidden Figures if you can’t connect those three women or if you are talking about events that took place over a 12-year period.”
In her statements, Cynthia Garrett has suggested the filmmakers should do reshoots to include her mother, but she seems less concerned about creative liberties than the notion that the half-brother she has accused of traumatizing her and her sister cashed a rights check and, until she spoke out, stood to bask in the reflected glory of his father’s accomplishments.
Nolfi reiterated that this is a worthy movie almost 25 years in the making that he believes deserves to be seen. Making a deal with Garrett Jr – before there was a hint of sexual assault allegations — was necessary because it brought the audiotapes and early scripts that informed the shooting script.
“[The allegations] took us completely by surprise,” Nolfi said. “In this era, when a charge like that comes, and it is peripheral to the movie in the sense that the person who is being accused had nothing to do with the movie other than being the rights holder who provided us with some photos, where are we as a society in terms of how are we going to deal with that?
“Do we want to bury the work of 1000 people and a story that is of great historical and contemporary importance, because of an accusation that is peripheral to the movie? It would be one thing if Bernard Jr was the controlling producer who designed the whole story, but that is just not true. It would be another thing if the story was somehow shaped to protect him, but none of that is true,” Nolfi said.