Meanwhile, somewhere in America …

by Tony Norman

Ryan Coogler prizes discretion. One of Hollywood’s most successful directors for more than a decade, he has never had his name attached to a commercial failure.

His last film, “Black Panther,” made $1.4 billion worldwide for Marvel/Disney, shattering the myth that a movie with a majority Black cast wouldn’t appeal to audiences outside America. Coogler’s personal wealth is estimated at $25 million, but you would never know it. He’s not ostentatious. He doesn’t roll with a flashy crowd. The paparazzi don’t pursue him. He’s a hardworking Black man who keeps his head down, making compelling movies with a minimum of on-set and off-set drama.

On Jan. 7, in Atlanta, where he had been filming “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Coogler approached the teller’s window at a Bank of America branch to make a routine withdrawal to pay his child’s babysitter.

That’s when Coogler, wearing a mask, dark shades, a green hoodie and a black beanie, became the reluctant star of a tense drama captured on the low-budget body cams of four Atlanta police officers dispatched to detain him as a suspected bank robber.

It started with a note scribbled on a withdrawal slip Coogler passed to the teller, a young Black female: “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.”

Coogler then inserted his card into the debit machine and punched in his pin. “I asked which account,” the teller told the cops. “He just kept pointing: ‘Look at the note.’ So, I’m like, OK. Do you have your ID? He did give me his ID. It was a California ID. But my stomach starting turning. It seems odd because you’re making a withdrawal, but you hand me a note on the back of a deposit slip.”

Coogler had more than enough money in his account to cover it, but the teller became flustered. She left the window to consult her manager and to share her suspicion that the message on the withdrawal slip was evidence of a robbery. Later, the the teller, who is pregnant, admitted she was too nervous to see if his name and ID matched the name on the account. Her suspicion was based on the director’s repeated pointing to his scribbled instructions.

The manager, who is also Black, agreed that written instructions to be “discreet” looked suspicious, so they called the Atlanta police. Four Black officers arrived minutes later and took the stunned director into custody. The cops also took his driver, who was waiting in the Marvel/Disney-owned Lexus in front of the bank, and his child’s babysitter into custody.

None of the cops or the bank employees connected the name Ryan Coogler to the director of “Black Panther.” He was kept in handcuffs, hands behind his back, during the bulk of the interrogation, which was clumsy and unprofessional. But slowly, it began to dawn on the officers that “mistakes were made,” even as they attempted to justify cuffing someone who turned out to be a very rich Black guy running errands.

One can only imagine what was going through Ryan Coogler’s head as he sat in the back of the patrol car. His directorial debut was the award-winning “Fruitvale Station,” a 2009 film about the murder of Oscar Grant, an unarmed young Black man who was shot in the back by a white transit cop.

At trial, the officer who killed Oscar Grant claimed he “mistook” his gun for a Taser, but the jury didn’t buy it. He was convicted of manslaughter but served only 11 months of his two-year sentence. Cops make Coogler nervous, and the feeling is mutual, as the awkward conversations captured on the body cams show.

Because Atlanta is experiencing a historic spike in robberies and other crimes, every day has become “Robbin season.” Coogler didn’t want the teller to use the bill-sorting machine because its loud noises would draw unwanted attention to him. He didn’t want to alert random strangers that he would be carrying wads of cash as he walked out the door. That’s why he wanted discretion.

Finally, Coogler, his identity confirmed, asked that his handcuffs be removed. His driver looked just as disgusted as he did when his cuffs were removed. The cops, now only nominally in charge as they handed over a slip of paper with their names and badge numbers, made one last attempt to smooth over the incident by asking if he had ever considered telling the bank his preference for a discreet withdrawal beforehand. The director insisted he’d done it many times before with no incident.

“I understand,” the cop said. “We have to confirm [the information]. Because of the seriousness of the call, we don’t just come out. Unfortunately, in a situation like that, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt. We detain, then we ask questions later.”

It was an honest but unsatisfactory answer. Coogler was quietly fuming at the end of the video. Later, he told “Good Morning, America” that the incident had been resolved by an apologetic Bank of America to his satisfaction and “we have moved on.”

For ordinary Black folks tuning in to the event on social media after TMZ broke the story on Wednesday, it was an incident that resonated deeply. Even though all of the principal players, from banking officials to the cops to Coogler’s entourage, were Black, it still represented the failures of a racist system that, as the officer stated, couldn’t give him “the benefit of the doubt.” They had their guns drawn as they approached him in the bank. That’s not easy to forget.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, shot or manhandled during the arrests, but it could’ve easily gone south if just one officer had felt sufficiently nervous. Coogler was compliant and respectful, though clearly pissed. He understood that his great wealth couldn’t protect him when the presumption of guilt is a function of police work. He had done nothing wrong, yet he had to tread carefully so he could make it back to his loved ones with no extra holes in him. This is not a psychic burden shared equally across society.

Tony Norman is a columnist and book review editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.