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New York Film Festival 2016 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

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New York Film Festival 2016: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, I Called Him Morgan, & Uncle Howard

Kartemquin Films

Steve James displays his usual savvy for picking culturally resonant topics in his latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. This time it’s the oddly underreported story of Abacus, the eponymous family-owned Chinatown business, which is the only U.S. bank ever indicted for fraud in connection with the subprime mortgage scandal of the late 2000s. The rest of the film’s title comes from journalist Matt Taibbi, who explains that the banks actually responsible for the crisis were all deemed “too big to fail,” so none were prosecuted for their crimes. “Too big to fail translates to small enough to jail, and Abacus is small enough to jail,” he says.

After charging Abacus and 19 individuals who worked there, prosecutor Cyrus Vance’s law office pressured the defendants to plead guilty, but the Sung family who owned the bank took the risky path of going to trial instead, insisting on their innocence. As Mr. Sung and his four daughters, all of whom had left other jobs to help their father at the bank, explain, they wanted to fight for the family’s honor. They also insist that they felt obligated to save the bank—which Mr. Sung founded after finding that all the banks then in Chinatown were happy to take his money but refused to give him a loan—for the sake of the community that depended on it.

The film anatomizes the bank’s sense of mission, the peculiarities of banking in a Chinese immigrant community, and the Sungs’ hard-fought lawsuit, which lasted five years and cost the family $10 million. James gets excellent access to people on all sides of the case, from lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense, to jurors who explain what they and their fellow jurors were thinking, to Chinatown leaders who assert that the assault on the bank was experienced as an attack on the integrity of the community as a whole. James also captures many frank and emotional discussions between members of the family, who seem oblivious to the camera as they plot strategy or talk about how the case is affecting them and their community.

At first glance, this might seem to be an atypical documentary for James. Over the years, he’s most often focused on how poverty and racism can warp lives, and on the routes people seek—often through sports—as they attempt to overcome those handicaps. But as he surfaces the systemic prejudice that underlies even this financial tale, James unearths yet another story about ethnicity, institutional arrogance, and an underdog’s battle to overcome powerful forces woven deep into the fabric of American life.

Large snowflakes falling toward the camera out of a white sky are a motif in filmmaker Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan. Opening the documentary and recurring toward the end, the dreamily beautiful image foreshadows the snowy night when Helen Morgan shot her husband, jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan. It also reprises the tone of this mournful yet life-affirming tale of the lives Helen and Lee lived before meeting, the joy and stability they gained from getting together, and what they both lost on that snowy night.

Cinematographer Bradford Young shot the interviews, in which old friends and colleagues like Wayne Shorter talk as lovingly about Helen’s cooking and her good influence on Lee, whom she helped to kick heroin, as they do about Lee’s blazing talent as a musician (“He knew how to tell a story musically,” Shorter says), precocious self-confidence, and contagious smile. 

There aren’t many visuals of Helen, who, we’re told, hated to have her picture taken, but the frank talking she did in an interview just a month before her 1996 death provide vivid insights into her background, her feelings about Lee, and her state of mind before, during, and after the shooting. Meanwhile, period photos, album covers, video and stills of Lee playing trumpet or just styling (both Morgans, we’re also told, were sharp dressers), along with ample clips of his supple trumpet-playing, a little talk recorded in a studio session, and an interview he recorded in 1971 help bring him to life.

The story of the night Helen shot Lee is related by a number of witnesses and deftly edited together—by no less than four editors—to tell the story of a death within a story that’s overwhelmingly life-affirming. Helen may be as bereaved by the murder she committed as anyone else, but ultimately no one is simply a victim in I Called Him Morgan, which pulls off the delicate maneuver of mourning Lee’s early demise while celebrating the exhilarating love, liberty, and artistic brilliance that characterized most of his life.

Uncle Howard attempts to do much the same thing as I Called Him Morgan but with less success. Director Aaron Brookner made the film about his filmmaker uncle Howard Brookner, who died of AIDS in 1989, just three days short of his 35th birthday. The film’s attempts to portray Howard’s personality and his 10-year relationship with Brad Gooch, like the frequent shots of Aaron going through his uncle’s archives, have the nose-pressed-against-glass feeling of a young man watching an admired older relative. Aaron is as solemnly worshipful, for instance, in his treatment of Howard’s last film and only Hollywood feature, Bloodhounds of Broadway, as he is of his uncle’s two DIY documentaries, though the ample footage and outtakes shown leave little doubt that Howard’s first film, Burroughs: The Movie, is as fascinating and appealingly loose-jointed as his Hollywood feature is stiff and labored.

The generically nostalgic reminiscences of filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and scene-makers like James Grauerholtz and John Giorno, who were part of William S. Burroughs’s entourage, don’t add much flavor either. But most of Howard’s footage, which probably makes up a third or more of the film, is lively and intriguing, a periscope generally trained on the gay men, punks, and Beat artists whose cross-pollination vitalized 1980s New York. Tom DiCillo, one of seven cinematographers to work on the Burroughs film, talks about the new movement he and Howard were part of, in which musicians and others rejected the notion that you had to be an expert to create art. “This idea of making a film just the way you want to, in some ways that came out of the punk movement—or they all came out of the same thing,” he says.

That may not be a particularly new observation, but the footage Howard shot of artists like Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg, Frank Zappa, and Patti Smith performing together bring it to life. In the same way, scenes from a birthday party packed with beautiful young men at Howard and Brad’s new place at the Chelsea communicate the thrill of New York’s newly open gay scene in a way that Brad’s brief attempt to explain it to Aaron does not. Aaron’s attempt to capture his uncle’s essence is touching, but unfortunately it’s too simplistic to provide much, if any, perspective—more Bloodhounds of Broadway than Burroughs: The Movie.

The New York Film Festival runs from September 30–October 16.