Golden Rule: “Abacus,” an Excellent Rote Documentary

Leading up to the 90th Academy Awards on March 4th, we’re going to be diving into as many of the nominated films as possible to look at what their chances are for taking home the Oscar. Today we’re looking at Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which is nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

Abacus, a small bank owned and operated by Thomas Sung and his family, has been a staple of Chinatown in New York City and the Chinese American community in the area – having helped thousands of Chinese immigrants establish financial stability and buy homes for years.

When the bank realized employees of their loan department were committing fraud they immediately fired them. Despite taking every correct and appropriate moral and legal action it should, the bank opened itself up to attacks from the New York DA’s office who threatened to shut it down. The ensuing court case, in which Abacus was indicted, is the only case in the US where a bank was indicted after the 2008 housing crisis. The case quickly became viewed as a way to send someone to jail after the crisis.

The film opened a window not only into the court case surrounding Abacus and the loans, but to the entire community that Abacus helped. In the documentary Thomas Sung talked about a restaurant owner who came in asking for a loan. He explained he knew the man was good for the money on the loan as he personally ate at the restaurant all the time and saw firsthand how much money they make.

There’s an undertone of a desire for “simpler times” where communities were important throughout the documentary. Where we wish financial institutions and the like saw the importance of what individuals, communities and businesses do rather than seeing the numbers listed on checks and W2’s. An individual’s commitment to his community has a very real impact and exposes the living and breathing American dream amongst all of us, including the immigrants who suffer the highest level of adversity in this country today.

Abacus is an important film. And it’s an intriguing film. It deserves the nomination it received.

That being said, as of now I still believe that Icarus is the front runner here. Abacus is a slow burn. And it’s a window into issues and subjects that most Americans could stand to see. But I don’t believe it’s strong enough to take home the Oscar.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is currently streaming on PBS and Amazon Prime and is available on DVD and Digital. Be sure to keep following Poor Man’s Spoiler for all of our Oscar coverage. The Oscars air on ABC on March 4th at 8pm ET.


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