Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Movie with Abe: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Directed by Steve James
Released May 19, 2017

When a crime is committed, there’s usually a victim and a perpetrator. There might be multiple people involved on either side, and something that’s clearly illegal or defines a crime is much easier to prosecute and implement punishment for than a more ambiguous and less finite misdeed or series or misdeeds. When it’s a company at fault and the constituents deserving of payment in some form for their grievances, public opinion usually comes into play, as does as the likelihood of successfully obtaining a conviction.

The subprime mortgage crisis that occurred beginning in 2007 in the United States has led many to place blame on a number of banks and corporations for their contributions to the rise and then subsequent collapse of the housing bubble. While the government stepped in to bail out some of the bigger banks, there was one small community bank, Abacus Federal Savings Bank, that was subjected to criminal charges, seen as an easier target because of its size and its specific identity as an institution of Chinatown in New York City.

This relatively straightforward investigative film is most effective in the way that it hones in on Chinese culture which, like other immigrant communities, doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between gifts from family and payments, thereby complicating the legality of certain important points in the run-up to Abacus being under fire. There is a sense throughout the film that this small group is serving as an example since the livelihood of more prominent and famous banks is directly tied in with that of the economy and the government, and the intimate nature of this film demonstrates just how preposterous its apparent scapegoating is.

Showcasing a segment of American society that assimilates well to a degree but still stands apart offers intriguing social commentary, and this film succeeds in that spotlight. At just ninety minutes, this film doesn’t cover all that much ground, remaining fully interesting for the entirety of its run but not reaching some incredible conclusion other than the fact that Abacus being singled out for prosecution in the subprime mortgage crisis was patently unfair. Its place among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary doesn’t make it feel entirely relevant or urgent, and it’s a perfectly passable, watchable examination that’s likely more effective when positioned next to a film about the big banks that didn’t go through anything similar to what Abacus experienced.


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