In Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James follows the Sung family, who founded and operate Abacus Federal Savings Bank of Chinatown, New York. This six-branch institution has the distinction of being the only bank actually indicted for involvement in the kind of mortgage scams that crippled the American economy in 2008, draining the country of trillions of dollars. The film’s subtitle is a play on the phrase “too big to fail,” which rationalizes the bailing out of corrupt institutions like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as a means of keeping the economy from collapsing (in a direct refutation of the “survival of the fittest” ideology that capitalism espouses). The New York district attorney, however, can make a pretense of compensating for this national hypocrisy by making an example out of small fish like Abacus.
James is an intensely humanist director, best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, which attached specific faces to sprawling examinations of the cruelty and waste beget by massive bureaucracies. Abacus presents the documentarian with a challenge, as the bank is undeniably guilty of several of the crimes that the D.A. brings to court. A few of Abacus’s employees scammed customers out of cash and cooked mortgage applications, though the Sungs caught and fired them and reported the issue to a compliance committee. But there’s reason to examine Abacus’s potentially larger culpability in the crimes, and this is before we learn of another scandal that racked the bank in 2003, when an employee embezzled over a million dollars, initiating a panic within Chinatown that lead to lines of customers seeking to withdraw their money. James takes the Sungs at face value, positioning their court case as a symbol of the inequalities gripping American society.
James’s unquestioning embrace of the Sungs occasionally depends on a willed authorial naïveté, as the family insists that they never knew of the crimes being committed under their umbrella, which fosters a fascinating irony that the filmmaker doesn’t examine: that big banks who got off scot-free from their involvement in the 2008 crisis made similar claims. The Sungs even justify themselves with a modified version of the “too big to fail” mentality, correctly claiming that Abacus serves a necessary infrastructural purpose in Chinatown, which is inhabited by immigrants who live as street vendors, earning wages that are often composed entirely of cash, which can lead to subjective paperwork when the time comes to file for a housing loan. Abacus deals with low-income, non-white people who Caucasian banks won’t deign to help, enabling the flow of illegitimate and untaxed money for the greater microcosmic good. James is essentially saying that the figurative little guy has to break the rules, which are rigged to favor those who follow no rules anyway.
This isn’t to say that the filmmaker should’ve simply distrusted and villainized the Sungs, who’re captured in a series of vivid and poignant clashes that succinctly illustrate their individual roles within the family, but rather to suggest that James has found material that begs for a vast and nuanced examination along the lines of his prior epics. The filmmaker shapes this narrative into an 88-minute courtroom thriller that elides paradox and ambiguity for propulsive pacing and visceral emotional pathos. James cleverly and persuasively restages portions of the trial with courtroom sketches and vocal recordings, revealing the prosecution to depend on witnesses who’re caught lying with nearly comic openness. But such developments invite other questions: Why are so many sketchy individuals involved with Abacus? Is this a sign of something larger or merely the unavoidable textures of the banking business? These unplumbed mysteries haunt the film.
If James turns a calculated blind eye to these ironies, he’s acutely aware of the perils of racism and classism that are endemic to justice systems. A bullet point is announced by Thomas Sung, the family patriarch, with enraged precision: that their defense cost an estimated $10 million to mount. Regardless of how one feels about the Sungs’ involvement in Abacus’s crimes, they deserve their day in court, which is denied of countless people and smaller businesses. Interlocked with this unjustness is the double standards applied to the Sungs for being Chinese-American, particularly when the D.A. shackles the defendants like a chain gang for their arraignment hearing, for no other ostensible purpose than humiliation.
Investigative journalist David Lindorf suggests in the film that black defendants would never be treated this way, as the justice department understands the public relations nightmare that such action would provoke. That claim is debatable when one considers the despicable treatment of African-Americans that’s described in the news on a daily basis, but it indicates an important distinction: Asian-American cultures must emulate the social organization of other minority factions that have fought hard for progress. Lindorf’s interview, along with the footage of a Chinese-American communal assembly near the end of the film, clarifies James’s aesthetically disappointing but socially important sentimentality. The filmmaker is clearly positioning Abacus as a rallying cry, and its weaknesses as art might bolster its strength as reformatory theater.