Perception is an unfortunate reality for a lot of people of color. The narratives that others form about us in their heads based on what we’re wearing, how we choose to style our hair, or what car we drive can put us in infuriating and life-threatening situations—even when the people forming those imagined narratives share the same skin color. I don’t know if that’s what happened when Black Panther director Ryan Coogler ended up in handcuffs for attempting to make a withdrawal from his account at a Bank of America in the affluent Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead on Jan. 7.
But something about the story feels wrong. It feels like a judgment was cast.
As several media outlets have reported recently, Coogler entered the bank, filled out a withdrawal slip for $12,000, and penned on the back of it a request that the cash be counted and handed to him discreetly. He handed a Black teller the withdrawal slip along with his California license and Bank of America account card, according to an incident report from the responding law enforcement agency, the Atlanta Police Department.
“The bank teller then received an alert notification from Mr. Coogler account and quickly advised her manager that suspect # 3 is attempting to rob the bank,” police said in the incident report. “911 was alerted and responded.” Suspect No. 3 was Coogler.
When officers arrived, they initially encountered a black Lexus SUV parked outside the bank with a driver and passenger inside both advising the officers that they were waiting for Coogler to make a transaction inside the bank and that he is a movie producer, according to the incident report. "The description that was given of Mr. Coogler match the description of the male suspect that is attempting to rob the Bank Of America," police said in the report. One of the officers detained both the driver and passenger and put them in the back of a patrol vehicle without handcuffs.
When officers detained Coogler, they handcuffed him until their investigation revealed he was who he said he was. Police said Coogler "was immediately taken out of handcuffs" and those in the back of the patrol car were released. Coogler requested the name and badge number of the officers on the scene.
Atlanta Police body-camera video showed an officer on the scene asking Coogler if he’s ever considered talking to the bank before making a transaction like that. Coogler tried to explain that making large withdrawals privately is a matter of safety. “I’m not saying out loud how much money I’m taking out,” he said. The officer continued to press, asking Coogler if he considered asking to speak to a manager to make the withdrawal.
“I may consider it now that y’all f—king drew guns on me while I was trying to take money out,” Coogler said. He continued explaining that this has never happened at any other Bank of America he has frequented.
“Y’all explaining y’all perspective, right? Y’all the ones with guns and vests,” Coogler said. “You understand what I’m saying? What’s my perspective?” He said the teller never told him there was a problem. He provided his own account card and pin number. “She asked to see my ID. I gave it to her,” Coogler said.
He added that bank personnel assured him they were taking care of him. “Next thing, I hear f—king Glocks. I hear Glocks getting pulled out. That’s what I hear,” Coogler said.
Coogler said in a statement to Variety magazine that the “situation should never have happened.”
“However, Bank of America worked with me and addressed it to my satisfaction and we have moved on," he added.
A Bank of America spokesperson apologized on behalf of the company in a media statement Daily Kos obtained on Thursday. “We deeply regret that this incident occurred,” the spokesperson said. “It never should have happened and we have apologized to Mr. Coogler.”
Coogler directed noted films each centering Black stories, whether fictional like the Rocky spinoff Creed featuring actor Michael B. Jordan, or based on a true story like Fruitvale Station. Coogler made his directorial debut in the latter film, documenting what happened on the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. Grant was a Black 22-year-old shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and it wasn’t Coogler’s only insight into the criminal justice system, according to a BuzzFeed profile of him.
He worked as a youth counselor at a juvenile detention center in San Francisco, even after the release of his award-winning feature film. "I can't wait to try and get back," he told the news site in July 2013.
Coogler was the same age as Grant when he was shot and killed, BuzzFeed reported.
"It's likely that no one else could have made a movie as honest, intuitive, and gut-punch devastating about Grant as Coogler, whose life has played out like a mirror image of his subject's tragically shortened one," journalist Jordan Zakarin wrote about Coogler. “Ask Coogler what he was like in high school, and he shakes his head, smiles, and says, ‘I didn't have anything figured out.’"
Coogler told Buzzfeed of Grant’s death: "That could have been me."
The director said his experience at the juvenile hall inspired his decision to make the movie, to change the way people view Black children. "We're the people that have close contact with the kids,” Coogler said of his work as a youth counselor. “We're people who are right there with them when they wake up, we're making sure that they're taking care of their chores, their responsibilities with hygiene, keeping their areas clean and go to school and making sure they eat, making sure they go to the nurse and all that stuff."
He added: "We're also there to talk with them. We're not psychiatrists or psychologists, they have those. We're there to talk to them. We're there for support. We're basically the adult presence in their lives. And we also have to keep them safe."
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