Steve James is one of the most accomplished documentary filmmakers in America, with credits including 1994’s landmark basketball epic Hoop Dreams (named the best documentary of all time by the International Documentary Association), 2003’s personal journey Stevie, 2011’s anti-gang chronicle The Interrupters and 2014’s portrait of Roger Ebert Life Itself. James’ latest feature, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, follows the 2015 trial of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned institution in New York City’s Chinatown that was the only bank to be criminally indicted for mortgage fraud following the 2008 financial crisis.
Abacus is one of five nominees for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards (airing March 4 on ABC) and the filmmaker’s first nomination in that category (both Hoop Dreams and Life Itself were somewhat notoriously left off the nomination lists, despite widespread acclaim and prior awards, with Hoop Dreams garnering a single Oscar nod for Best Film Editing).
For James, the important thing is that the story told in the movie is getting its time in the spotlight. “We didn’t have deep pockets behind us for releasing the film,” he says. “We didn’t have deep pockets behind us in making the film. And we didn’t have deep pockets behind us in mounting any kind of campaign for awards for the film.”
James was so drawn to the story of the Sung family, Abacus’ founders and owners, that he began shooting the movie without any financing at all, after being introduced to the Sungs by producer Mark Mitten. “It was when I met the family that it really hit me that this would be an important story to tell,” he recalls. “Because I was just really captivated by them each individually and collectively. Here is this very proud, stoic father [Abacus founder Thomas Sung] who is beloved by his family and his daughters, and four very strong-willed daughters, three of whom are lawyers like him. Everything about the family dynamic that I witnessed pretty early on just told me that this could be a really compelling story as well as an important story.”
During the Great Recession massive conglomerates went more or less unpunished (or were bailed out by the government), despite causing financial harm to millions of people. However, the six-location Abacus was deemed “small enough to jail,” a target that could be taken on by the New York City District Attorney’s office. As the U.S. economy melted down thanks to widespread default on subprime mortgages, America’s 2,651st-largest bank was the only bank to be criminally indicted for mortgage fraud.
“This small bank had discovered some very low-level kind of fraud within their ranks, and they had moved to deal with it,” James explains. “They fired Ken Yu, the original corrupt loan officer. They initiated their own internal investigations. They’d gotten rid of some other people. They reported it all to the regulators and to Fannie Mae. And they even at first were cooperating with the D.A.’s office, because they thought the D.A.’s office was going to help them root out any further fraud. Everything about their actions bespoke a bank that wanted to do right. And yet they were rewarded with being criminally prosecuted.”
Thomas Sung and his daughters Vera and Jill (both senior executives at the bank) decided to fight back in court, determined to clear the name of a business that had been serving the Chinatown community since 1984. James uses clips from It’s a Wonderful Life to equate Thomas Sung with James Stewart’s kind-hearted banker character George Bailey, and he’s not the only one who views Sung, now in his 80s, that way.
“I probably wouldn’t have done it if I had thought of it completely on my own, because it would have felt forced on the film,” James says. But multiple interviewees cited the way that Sung handled a 2003 run on Abacus following the discovery of a bank employee who embezzled money and then fled. “The only way in which the run subsided was because Mr. Sung walked among the people and he said, ‘Feel my warm hands. I’m here.’ Really, it was his stature and reputation that quelled the run, much like Jimmy Stewart’s integrity and the belief of people in him as a person quells the run in It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It’s fitting, then, that this documentary with very contemporary social relevance along with a sense of cinematic history is going to have a presence at the Academy Awards. James is proud of the nomination as a filmmaker (“It really does speak to people loving the film and loving the story of the film,” he says), and he’s also proud of the attention it brings to the Sungs, whom he hopes to bring along with him to the ceremony. “[Mrs. Sung] said that for 60 years she’s been watching the Oscars dutifully on television,” James says. “And when she was a young girl, she was so star struck by movies that she would cut out pictures of movie stars and put her name next to them in her scrapbook. So we’ve got to get them there. Win or lose, it would just be extraordinary to have them there and experience this night with them.”
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is available for VOD rental, on Amazon Prime and to stream for free on the PBS website.
Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Lowdown, ABP’s weekly roundup of under-the-radar headlines, mind-blowing science and emerging talent. Make your Tuesday a little cooler.