To date there has been only one trial as a result of the 2008 financial meltdown and it wasn’t one of the banks deemed too big to fail. The prosecution was of the Abacus Community Bank, founded by Thomas Sung, a lawyer who saw a need to serve his community with a bank that would not only take deposits from the citizens of New York’s Chinatown, but also grant loans. The bank grew, the community prospered, and when an irregularity in a mortgage closing was noticed by Thomas’ daughter, Jill, it was reported to the authorities right away. The result was a vigorous, years-long prosecution that called into question the motives of the prosecutor, Cyrus Vance, Jr., as well as cultural misunderstandings, and the issue of whose good prosecuting this bank would do for the public good.
When I spoke to Steve James on March 13, 2017 in anticipation of his film’s screening at CAAMFest, the first thing I did was thank him for making me care about high school basketball with his documentary HOOP DREAMS. James has a genius for taking an issue and making it not just accessible, but also emotionally compelling. That’s evident in his latest doc, ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, about the only prosecution brought to date from the financial meltdown of 2008. While the giant financial institutions escaped with little more than a rap on the knuckles, the Abacus Community Bank was indicted on over 100 charges stemming from the corrupt practices of a few employees. That those employees were fired as soon as their activities were discovered, and the bank reported it to the government immediately did nothing to mitigate a prosecution that included indictments of the bank’s founder, Thomas Sung, and his daughter Jill, a bank officer. It also included parading shackled defendants in front of the press, something done so rarely in any prosecution that no one could remember the last time it had happened.
The conversation covered why James wanted to tell this story; his choice to not inject himself in the story while still maintaining a distinct point of view; and where he does his own banking after investigating this story.
ABACUS is his documentary about the only prosecution to result from the financial meltdown of 2008, and calls into question the reasons for the prosecution of this institution. James’ previous work includes the Peabody Award-winning HOOP DREAMS, as well as STEVIE and LIFE ITSELF.