A police officer detains "Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler at a Bank of America branch in Atlanta, in this January 2022 image made from Atlanta Police video. Coogler was mistaken for a bank robber at the bank. Credit: Associated Press

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox three times a week.

A Black man walks into a Bank of America branch in Atlanta. He is wearing sunglasses and a sweatshirt, a work badge with his picture hanging in plain view on his right hip, and an N95 mask over his mouth and nose. He writes a note to the teller on a withdrawal slip: “I would like to withdraw $12,000 cash from my checking account. Please do the money count somewhere else. I’d like to be discreet.” 

Branch staff and the manager respond by calling the police. Officers arrive with guns drawn. The man, confused, is handcuffed. He asks the officers, “Is there any reason you’re doing this, bruh?” He is not given any clear answers. He is handcuffed and placed in the back of an officer’s vehicle. The man is celebrated Hollywood film director and Oakland native Ryan Coogler. 

When news of the incident broke on Wednesday, my immediate reaction was to judge the celebrity’s choice of banks: Mr. Coogler, sir, you have three box-office hits under your belt (Fruitvale Station, Creed, Black Panther). Why are you still doing business with B of A, a bank found to have a long history of discriminatory lending practices

It wasn’t until after watching the three minutes of body-cam footage, captured on Jan. 7, showing Coogler answering questions while still handcuffed, that the severity of what had happened came into full view for me. 

One year and a day after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a largely white mob, the Black director of Fruitvale Station—a film about Oscar Grant III, a young Black man who was killed at that BART station by police on New Year’s Day in 2009—was sitting in the backseat of a police vehicle in handcuffs. 

The irony was not lost on me. Whereas white people can literally climb the walls of a federal building and create chaos with relatively little consequence for nearly everyone involved, Black people are only freely “allowed” and “permitted” into a seemingly endless array of spaces only when they’re deemed useful. Otherwise, Black people are all-too-frequently considered a threat for wanting and having something of our own, or simply some space to ourselves.

In the audio recording of the bank clerk’s 911 call that day, the clerk can be heard telling dispatchers that she didn’t really look at Coogler’s identification. But she did notice that it was a California ID, and described Coogler as “acting weird.” I get it. I’m from California and to lots of people in middle America, we are weird. But being “weird” and from California is not a crime, even in the state of Georgia. 

Coogler is a globally known artist whose films shed light on racial inequality and dispel myths about Black communities. We can tell ourselves that success and wealth are safe havens. But success has never prevented Black people from being racially profiled. 

In 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested for entering his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2013, rapper and Oakland native MC Hammer accused police of racial profiling after he was charged with resisting arrest in Dublin, California. In 2016, comedian Chris Rock was pulled over no less than three times in two months while driving his own vehicle. Democratic state representative Park Cannon was arrested last year for knocking on the door of a fellow lawmaker’s home. 

Ryan Coogler is unassuming in appearance. He doesn’t have a large public persona or flashy social media presence. When he speaks you can hear traces of his Oakland roots in the cadence of “aye, bruh.” He walked into a bank and requested to withdraw his own money and was perceived to be a threat for running a routine errand. 

It didn’t matter that Coogler was in Atlanta, a city often called “The Black Mecca” for being a center of Black wealth and business, with a population that is 50% Black. It didn’t matter that he gave the world Michael B. Jordan’s abs in Creed. It didn’t matter that Coogler is the director of Black Panther, one of the highest-grossing films ever, or that it was the first movie based on a comic book to be nominated for an Oscar. It didn’t matter that Coogler was in the middle of working on the upcoming Wakanda Forever. It didn’t matter that his last name is easy to Google. It didn’t matter that he is a husband and father. It didn’t matter that he went to both St. Mary’s and USC. All of that history and hard work became irrelevant when Coogler walked into that bank. 

An errand to the bank shouldn’t trigger trauma or the anxiety that comes from being labeled, misjudged, and placed in handcuffs. Requesting a withdrawal shouldn’t be met with a 911 call and sirens.

Thankfully, the consequences of the incident, chalked up as “a mistake” by a bank teller, weren’t dire. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station still haunts us, a reminder that violence against Black bodies is an ever-present threat during interactions with the police. Our eyes watch for sudden hand movements towards a taser or gun with a quickening of the heart rate. 

Over the past couple of days, from the momentary comfort and tenuous security of my home in Oakland, I’ve watched the Coogler video. I’ve listened to the 911 audio as I’ve gone about my daily routines around town. As outrageous as the news may seem to a person who isn’t Black, I don’t feel moved to take action in the street or change how I navigate the world, because nothing I’m seeing is new. I’ve become so jaded, that my first instinct was to find levity in how poorly Coogler was treated. That’s a problem. This feels normal, and it shouldn’t. There is a part of me that wants to feel appalled, not apathetic. I just want this to feel like news.

Brandy Collins

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.