By now, the 2008 economic crisis is no secret.
It's also no secret that despite the massive failures of many of this nation's largest financial institutions, not a single one of 'em ever really had to pay a price for their failures.
Oh, wait. There was, in fact, one financial institution that had charges brought against it in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis - a smallish bank called Abacus Federal Savings, an institution started by first-generation Chinese immigrant Thomas Sung designed to specifically serve New York's Chinatown, an area of New York known for its high population of Chinese immigrants. Recognizing that this population had unique needs, Sung, an attorney, began Abacus supported by his family and watched it grow into a strong community force within Chinatown.
When Abacus discovered that one of its own loan officers was guilty of wrongdoing, rather than try to hide it they turned in the employee and made steps to ensure such actions couldn't occur again. Unfortunately for Abacus, this all occurred about the time of the 2008 financial crisis and their acknowledgement of these actions ultimately led to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., sweeping into their institution with an intense show of intimidation and charging Abacus, along with several employees including Thomas Sung, with literally dozens of felonies.
Believing they had done no wrong, at least not intentionally, Sung and his daughters, also attorneys, decided to fight back in the face of possible ruin and ruin of Abacus's positive legacy within Chinatown. Despite the almost unimaginable difficulty in going up against New York's massive justice system, Abacus began a five-year legal battle that would ultimately lead to findings of wrongdoing yet a verdict of innocence on all counts for all parties.
Directed by award-winning documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is an intelligent and involving doc feature that reveals the ever present racism within the justice system and the failings of a justice system that seems hellbent on finding someone, anyone to charge despite nearly no evidence of criminal intent and very few indications that Abacus had harmed anyone through their actions. While James's position seems rather obvious throughout the film, the facts speak for themselves and the end result is a glimpse inside the justice system that is disturbing, frightening and ultimately unforgettable.
James also finds the heart within the story, beautifully capturing the story of the Sung family and just how this entire experience drew the family closer to one another even as the stress continued to build over the course of five years and only ended when Thomas Sung was 80-years-old.
Picked up by PBS Distribution, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is currently available for streaming and purchase and is one of the year's most revealing and involving documentaries.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic