‘Abacus’ Director Talks the Criminality of “Too Big to Fail”

The documentarian talks about his portrait of a family in crisis and a court case that strikes at the heart of racial injustice.

An Oscar nominee for his editing on 1994’s Hoop Dreams, Steve James has been nominated again this year for his documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, about a family bank’s legal struggles.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis involving epic fraud and no indictments, Abacus was a fiscally responsible bank that had weathered the storm with a default rate one-twentieth the national average. In 2010, Thomas Sung, founder and chairman of Abacus, was alerted by daughters Jill (Abacus’ president and CEO) and Vera (the bank’s director) about irregularities in the loan division. They rooted out the cause and notified U.S. District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. for further investigation, only to discover several weeks later that they were the target of the D.A.’s inquiry. James, 62, talks about his portrait of a family in crisis, a court case that strikes at the heart of racial injustice and the criminality of “too big to fail.”

How did you manage to get so intimate with the family?

Their biggest reluctance was, at the beginning, to speak specifically about the case until after the trial was concluded. But what they did let us into was their own family discussions, which were much more interesting and revealing anyway. Their courage and conviction and belief were inspiring, but they were also this lively, bickering, hilarious family.

Why do you think Vance went so hard on the Sungs?

I think that the D.A. and his office believed it would probably not come to trial because the bank would roll over and plead guilty and pay a fine. But he didn’t offer them what other banks are offered, which is to pay a big fine and avoid criminal charges. What was important to Vance was getting a conviction. It was about being able to say he was the D.A. that brought a bank to its knees.

The employees were chained together in a perp walk that’s been described as racist. How big a part does racism play in this story?

To chain people together like that is unbelievably racist. They wouldn’t have done it to black people because we’ve already done it to them for 300 years. They would never do it to white bank employees. So it’s a profound level of insensitivity and racism. But then it carried over to the trial. They really pursued this case through a lens of trying to get the jurors, none of whom were Asian or Chinese, to look at these folks as if they’re immigrants who came here to take advantage of our system.

Did this racism come from the top?

People ask me if I think Vance is racist. I put that question to him in the film. He took great umbrage and said, “We have great relations with the Chinese community. We did not treat this bank any different than we would an Indian bank or South American banks.” What he said was more revealing of how racism plays out in this country.

Why do you think most mainstream media didn’t pick up the story?

It’s not sexy and big enough like what’s going on with the big banks. But I don’t think this is some little footnote to the 2008 crisis. I think this shows how they used the wheels of justice with no attempt at all to seek justice.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.