Why did virtually all of the big banks escape prosecution after the economic crisis? No matter how many times we ask, it’s still a rage-inducing question. Actually, one company in the US did end up in the dock: a tiny family-run Chinese-American firm, Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which became a scapegoat for the whole industry. As we learn in ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’ – which plays as a mix of legal thriller and warm family comedy – the company did have a bad-apple employee, who was duly fired and reported to the authorities. For its diligence, Abacus was slapped with multiple conspiracy indictments, triggering a five-year courtroom battle.
Director Steve James, maker of the mighty ‘Hoop Dreams’, explores the bank’s idealistic origins, set up to serve immigrants, mostly in New York’s Chinatown. Doing business in this community was a matter of personal pride for the bank’s softly-spoken founder Thomas Sung. We see Sung and his whip-smart adult daughters batting around courtroom strategies over plates of sizzling food. Throughout James’s scrappy story, there’s a winning sense of humour, showing the spunk of people not used to getting pushed around.