Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017)

abacus small enough to jail poster 2017 documentary
8.5 Overall Score

Flipside to the Big Short, surprisingly uplifting

Unbalanced pro-family, muddled court argument

Movie Info

Movie Name:   Abacus:  Small Enough to Jail

Studio:   Mitten Media

Genre(s):   Documentary

Release Date(s):   September 11, 2016 (Toronto International Film Festival)

MPAA Rating:   Not Rated

abacus small enough to jail family documentary

A family under fire

The loan system leads to the financial crisis of 2008, and one bank is charged.  The small family owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank located in Manhattan’s Chinatown finds itself charged with fraud and other criminal actions.  The Sung family discovers that they are fighting a war that could not only determine they’re bank’s future but the future of their clients and the community.  As the court battle rages on, Abacus must prove its innocence and failure to do that could destroy a family and the bank’s clients.

Directed by Steve James, Abacus:  Small Enough to Jail is a documentary focusing on a court case following the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.  The documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was received positively.  It was aired on PBS on Frontline on September 12, 2017.  The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The Big Short was an interesting look at the crisis in 2008.  It was scary and funny at the same time and showed what went wrong with the financial crisis.  In the post credits, it is mentioned that only one bank was charged…this is that bank.  Abacus:  Small Enough to Jail (a play on the saying “Too large to fail” when used to describe the banking system at the time) is a nice flip side and tells the bank’s story.

abacus small enough to jail courtroom sketch artist documentary

The court case is rolled out

The movie is about a bank but it is largely about the Sung family who own and run the bank.  The movie shows how the family interacts with a community that doesn’t trust banks and how that influences the loaning aspect of the story.  It is a very pro-Sung family documentary and helps vindicate them, so it can’t be argued that it is an entirely balanced documentary as a result.  The prosecutors aren’t portrayed in the best light and the better portrayal is by the female juror who presents both why she felt the Sungs were guilty in some aspects and why she voted not guilty to the charges…a telling interview with the prosecutors however shows an extreme misunderstanding of the law in that she says they aren’t voted “innocent”…as the law stands, they are and that needs to be remembered.

The debate of the film comes under who knew what and if the bank was intentionally defrauding the government (especially involving Sallie Mae).  The bank (according to the filmmakers) followed the correct procedures and reported the fraud when they learned of it, but through the telling of the movie, this unintentionally gets muddied a little into “no one got harmed and the loans actually had a lower level of default”.  While this is also true, it places a question if there was some knowledge (plus additional pushing of the different perspective on banks by the Chinese people Abacus serves).  It feels like it would help the argument to have omitted this question of ethics.

abacus small enough to jail chinatown new york city documentary

Forget it Jake…It’s Chinatown!

Abacus:  Small Enough to Jail seems to be telling two stories.  The first story is the story of a family trying to help those around them in changing cultures who suddenly finds itself under attack.  The second story is the story of blame and finding a scapegoat for the financial crisis of 2008.  Both of these stories come together in a story that is compelling and at times tense (if you aren’t researched on the case).  While the film does have a bias, it also feels that it is a balanced bias due to the levels of government targeting the family.  Abacus:  Small Enough to Jail turns into a surprising uplifting story as a result…Abacus lives on!

Related Links:

The 90th Academy Awards Nominations

The Big Short

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

Leave A Response