Steve James is one of the most humane documentary filmmakers out there. In Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and The Interrupters, James would ease the audience into the world of his subject. Patience was his primary strategy – he knows trust takes time – so his films all have the rewards that come with deliberate curiosity. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a departure from James’ work, insofar that he tells this story with forceful urgency. The film is mostly a legal thriller, a real-life David and Goliath story, with the added complication of institutional racism. A crisp run time notwithstanding, James still finds opportunities to develop a family defined by their determination and fierce intelligence.
Abacus Federal Saving Bank is nowhere near one of the biggest banks in the country. It is a family operation, with only a handful of branches in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. The bank was started by Thomas Sung, a Chinese immigrant who saw his business as a way to help a community in need. The action really starts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the Manhattan’s District Attorney’s office indicts bank employees for mortgage fraud. In fact, Abacus is the only bank who faced indictment as a result of the 2008 crash. The DA did not count on Sung’s four daughters, including a former prosecutor, on fighting the charges in court. James follows the Jung family as they make their case, discuss strategy, and deal with stress this has on their profits.
The particulars of the case are presented steady clip. At time, the amount of information and detail can be dizzying. James, however, is shrewd enough to know when he should slow down the action. Also, the Sung daughters are compelling figures. James defines them delicately: in an argument over dinner, the eldest admits she can be bossy, while the youngest is frustrated since everyone talks over – even if she has the most experience in criminal court. James recreates the courtroom proceedings with sketches and the Sungs rereading official transcripts, and this material would be dry if the witness testimony didn’t include such brazen lies.
The juxtaposition of legal procedure and family drama unearths the deeper purpose of Abacus. This family faced a legal witch hunt, and yet in crucial ways, the Jungs are perfectly ordinary. They bicker, they fall into familiar dynamics, and they are fiercely loyal. In other words, the only thing that makes them unusual is how their businesses dealings are in tune with Chinese social norms.
The most fascinating sections of Abacus are where the Jung sisters explain how they reconcile community and financial challenges. When applying for a mortgage, for example, gifts have a specific definition in the American financial industry, while the line between a “gift” and “loan” are fluid among Chinese families. These subtle differences are the heart the prosecution’s case, and their willful ignorance of them suggest the case is racially motivated. The Jung sisters never play that proverbial card, nor does James, and so the procedural details speak for themselves.
James may stack the deck in the Jung’s favor, and yet he has the wherewithal to include commentary from the opposing side. He interviews defense and prosecuting attorneys, including the lead prosecutor, and gives the suggestion that the audience has enough room to decide the particulars for themselves. Interviews with jurors are also nuanced, so we understand how their version differs from the Jungs, and why. All documentaries are manipulative in one way or another. The worst ones insult our intelligence, while the best ones trust it instead. James’ constant empathy extends beyond his subjects, and into the minds of his audience. Aside from the excitement of a courtroom drama, his confidence in us is its own reward.