“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” earned a shocking Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature despite being ranked 12th in our predictions with 100/1 odds. But despite relatively little fanfare it rights a wrong at the Oscars going back 23 years: filmmaker Steve James, the man behind the landmark movie “Hoop Dreams” (1994), is finally up for Best Documentary for the first time in his career.
“Hoop Dreams” spent years following a pair of black students from poor communities as they attempted to build their futures by playing high school basketball. Widely hailed as a classic — including by Roger Ebert, who was among the most vocal in championing the film — it won James a Directors Guild Award, an ACE Eddie Award, an Independent Spirit Award, an International Documentary Association Award and even an MTV Movie Award. But then it wasn’t even nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars, leading to such a protest that the academy amended its voting process in the category. James did receive one other nomination for the film, though: Best Film Editing, a rare achievement for a documentary.
But even with new rules in place the motion picture academy wouldn’t give James the time of day in the Best Documentary race. He received acclaim and industry recognition for later films including “At the Death House Door” (2008), “The Interrupters” (2011) and the Roger Ebert tribute “Life Itself” (2014), but none of the made the final five at the Oscars. It may have taken a couple of decades, but “Abacus” finally did the trick.
“Abacus” takes place in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, when the small Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which is family-owned and largely serves the Chinese immigrant community, was the only bank prosecuted for financial crimes. The film follows the tense legal proceedings from the point of view of the Sung family that runs the bank. It also suggests hypocrisy on the part of prosecutors, who neglected to pursue charges against large institutions that were considered “too big to fail” and instead focused their resources on a bank that was “small enough to jail.”
In addition to its Oscar nomination, the film was also awarded Best Political Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, and James earned a nomination from the Directors Guild. Can he now win the Academy Award that was denied to him 23 years ago for “Hoop Dreams”?
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