In the 1960s two African-American entrepreneurs hire a working-class white man to pretend to be the head of their business empire while they pose as a janitor and chauffeur.
In 1954, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) wants to get into real estate, but encounters a lot of racism. He gets wealthy club owner Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) to be his co-investor, and together they get Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to pose as them in meetings to facilitate the sales because he’s a white man. Eventually, they become extremely successful in Los Angeles real estate. Bernard wants to buy the local bank in his old Texas hometown in order to give loans to black people to start businesses and buy homes, which they are never afforded. Matt does the job, and eventually asks to expand to a second bank. Eventually, Matt’s lack of banking experience gets them in trouble, and they are all brought up on federal charges. Bernard testifies passionately about black people being given the same opportunity for upward mobility. He and Joe serve time in prison, and when they are released, go with Bernard’s wife Eunice (Nia Long) to the few properties they have left in the Bahamas to rebuild.
1954, Bernard Garrett wants to get into real estate but encounters racism that prevents him from being a successful real estate investor. After a chance encounter with wealthy club owner Joe Morris, he convinces Joe to be his co-investor. Together they convince Matt Steiner, a white man, to pose as the front of the company in meetings to facilitate the sales. Eventually, they become extremely successful in Los Angeles real estate, with the two teaching Matt the basics of real estate investing. The three secure a number of properties in L.A. and effectively integrate a number of previously segregated neighborhoods by selling and renting to Black families. After this success, he sets his sights on the local bank in his Texas hometown to give loans to the Black residents. Racist bank practices had excluded Black people from receiving loans for small businesses and homeownership. Joe protests the idea at first but eventually relents and the three move to Texas.
Matt buys the bank, fronting for Bernard and Joe, but the local townspeople are extremely suspicious of this move. A bank executive tracks the records of the loans and discovers that they’re giving loans to black people, follows Matt and discovers that his partners are black, then threatens them with exposure which would cause “a run on the bank.” Matt persuades Joe and Bernard to purchase a second bank and put him in charge of it despite his inexperience. The racist bank executive calls in a federal investigator who checks the records of Matt’s bank and discovers numerous infractions attributable to Matt’s carelessness. Matt, Bernard and Joe get arrested for violating federal banking laws.
Facing a 50-year prison term, Matt takes a plea deal, falsely testifying that he was duped by Bernard and Joe. The next day, Bernard testifies passionately about black people being given the same opportunity for upward mobility as whites. He and Joe are convicted and serve time in prison; upon release, they go with Bernard’s wife Eunice to live in the Bahamas in two homes which Matt had purchased for them with money Bernard had entrusted to him for that purpose the night before Bernard’s testimony.
In 1954, the brilliant and logical Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and his wife Eunice (Nia Long) move from Willis, Texas to Los Angeles. Bernard hopes to use the money he’s saved from a successful business to get into real estate. He finds a building that would be a great place to start, but it’s about ten thousand too expensive for him. Eunice suggests he get a co-investor, and introduces him to her old friend Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), who owns a club in town.
Bernard can’t stand Joe, who’s wisecracking, drinking, and uses colorful language, and refuses to work with him. He goes to the building owner, Patrick Barker (Colm Meaney) and tells him that if he can sell him the building for ten thousand under, he can renovate the building, make it back and pay him. Patrick refuses at first, but when Bernard is persistent and dogged, Patrick agrees.
The building is a success, and impressed, Patrick asks Bernard to go into business with him. They’ll split the profits fifty-fifty, but because of the racism of the time, Patrick will do the signing because people will sell to him. The business is highly successful, and Bernard and Eunice move into a great house. When Patrick passes away in his sleep, his wife refuses to honor the terms of his deal with Bernard – she offers to buy Bernard out of the properties at twenty-five cents on the dollar, which he is forced to accept.
He comes up with an idea to buy a building in downtown Los Angeles that contains most of the bankers, knowing that by owning it he will be able to learn more about properties and buy more. Needing money, he finally turns to Joe, who points out that no one will sell the building to a black man. They need a front person, and Bernard picks Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), who had been one of his renovation workers.
They spend a month teaching him how to golf and about money and the math of property and buildings. Matt is able to memorize enough information to convince the owner to sell, and Bernard and Joe become the first black men to own a building in downtown LA. From there they become extremely successful in buying over a hundred properties all over Los Angeles.
In 1963, Bernard goes to visit his father in Willis, and his son observes the racism and segregation still taking place. Bernard has an idea: he wants to buy the local Mainland Bank and finally give loans to black people to allow them to become homeowners or start small businesses. Joe knows they will face extreme racism and thinks it’s a terrible idea, but when Bernard declares he will do it on his own Joe gets onboard.
They again need Matt to pose as the buyer, rousing the suspicions of the bank’s current owner’s son, Robert Florance Jr (Scott Daniel Johnson), who will remain on as a twenty percent shareholder. The plan is successful at first, and they are able to give loans to black people, but Florance eventually catches on and threatens them that if the people find out all the white people will pull their money out.
Meanwhile, Matt’s wife pressures him to not just be an employee, but an owner. Matt presents Joe and Bernard a plan to buy a second bank. They think it’s too risky, but Matt tells them if he can run his own bank he has to move on – and with no white person in charge at Mainland, they would be doomed, so they reluctantly agree. Matt buys a collection of loan packages, and soon his bank is under a federal audit. It turns out he did not use the lawyer Bernard recommended, but in a time crunch got one from Florance, who then put bad loans into the package. Matt then buys those loans at Mainland, thinking it will fix the problem, but actually gets him, Joe, and Bernard all arrested under federal banking laws.
Senator McClellan (James Dumont) is running the federal trial, and promises Matt he will receive decades in prison if he doesn’t testify that he did everything as Joe and Bernard ordered. McClellan wants to use the trial to change banking laws so that the owners are always public information, dooming minorities from ever owning again. He tells Bernard if he doesn’t make it political during his testimony and simply says he was a crook, he can avoid jail time. At the hearing, Bernard passionately explains that the system prevents black people from getting an opportunity for advancement and the American dream.
He and Joe lose all their properties but one and are sentenced to three years in jail, and Florance takes ownership of Mainland. When Bernard is released, Joe and Eunice pick him up. When she asks where they’re going, Bernard reveals the night before his testimony, Matt called him, horribly guilty, and he was able to get him to transfer two homes… in the Bahamas.
Post-script tells that Joe and Bernard were able to start over and begin doing business from the Bahamas. I’m 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed, making it illegal for anyone to deny renting to someone based on the color of their skin.