It is a testament to Steve James that he can turn a subject that, by all accounts, is best understood by a small subset of the population (namely, a federal savings bank being prosecuted by the US government for falsifying loan applications for mortgages) into a ripping yarn that is not only accessible, but full of stylistic flourishes that compliment the narrative at hand rather than detract from it. It also helps that his subjects, a headstrong Chinese-American patriarch, his wife, and their three animated and fiercely intelligent daughters, are all fascinating in their own right, leading the charge against wrongdoing and, in doing so, making a plea for understanding—not only for themselves, but for all immigrant communities that work to serve their people. This is also the heart of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail: the frightening ease in which minorities are scapegoated by stronger forces, and the power of their common bonds to remain indestructible in the face of overwhelming odds. James tells this story with much empathy, not necessarily concerning himself with too much of the financial world’s jargon, and instead focusing on those universal kernels that speak loudly and singly to us all.
In the context of his other works, Abacus is not one of James’ crowning achievements, focused as it is on one case in the US criminal justice system that has a clear beginning and end. Its replay value is not as strong as, say, Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters. Nor can you convince me this is a minor work for him. Steve James does not do “minor.” You best believe that when James finds a subject worthy of his attention, it’s worthy of all our attentions. Abacus, however self-contained, is no different.