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Actor Nathan Davis Jr. talks being racially profiled on an airplane and falsely accused of having a gun

“I feel like that I needed to talk about the situation to kind of show people that no matter how much money or fame you have, as a Black man, we’re still gonna have a target on our backs."
Nathan Davis Jr. performs during a WNBA basketball game in Los Angeles
Nathan Davis Jr. performs during a WNBA basketball game in Los Angeles on July 7, 2018.Leon Bennett / Getty Images file

Actor Nathan Davis Jr., best known for “Detroit,” “Hotel Artemis” and Marvel’s “Runaways,” said that growing up as a Black man, he never really experienced racism. But, in a lawsuit filed recently, Davis reveals that he was kicked off an airplane last December, after a flight attendant told him he was playing music too loudly and falsely accused him of possessing a gun, an incident Davis claims was racially motivated.

“I was extremely fearful,” Davis said in an interview with Variety. “I honestly felt like there was nobody there that had my back. I was the only Black man on the plane. I just honestly felt like my life didn’t matter — I literally felt like this lady was going to take away my life, just by saying that I had a gun.”

Davis and his attorney George Mallory filed the racial discrimination lawsuit against United Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines — which operates as United Express, on behalf of United — and ManaAir.

Davis is asking that a judge award him $10 million in damages.

In a statement, Matthew Parsons, manager of corporate communications for ExpressJet Airlines, told Variety: “While we cannot comment on active litigation, ExpressJet does not tolerate racism and we are investigating this incident to better understand what occurred onboard our aircraft in December."

After going public with the lawsuit, the 26-year-old TikTok star (with more than 9 million followers on the app) is addressing why he decided to speak up now.

“I feel like that I needed to talk about the situation to kind of show people that no matter how much money or fame you have, as a Black man, we’re still gonna have a target on our backs,” Davis said. “And I don’t want another person to go through this situation who doesn’t have the platform that I have.”

In the suit, Davis reported that after taking his seat at the back of the flight from Houston to Nashville, he was approached by a female flight attendant asking him to turn down his music, which was playing through his earbuds from his cell phone. Davis says that he complied with her instructions and turned the music down. He noticed that other passengers around him were also listening to music on their devices, but were not approached. Davis goes on to say that the attendant approached him a second and third time, speaking only to him.

“The last time, the third time, I had my music paused, just to see, and she did it again and she was mocking me,” he said.

Davis says that other passengers sitting near him on the plane told him that they couldn’t hear his music and that they felt the attendant was singling him out. So, the actor began recording what was happening on the plane, which had begun taxiing down the runway. In one video obtained by Variety, Davis says, “She’s literally calling the cops on me for listening to music. That’s crazy.”

He decided to record what was happening so that he could later share it with others. “I just started recording because I felt like that was the only way the truth was gonna come out, with me recording on my phone,” he said.

According to the lawsuit, the flight attendant called the captain from the telephone at the rear of the plane and it was announced shortly thereafter that the plane would “return to the gate to remove a passenger.” After reaching the gate, one of the airline’s operations supervisors boarded the plane and escorted Davis off to have a private conversation with the captain on the jetway. Things escalated from there and Davis began recording again. According to the lawsuit, the captain “attempted to forcefully take away [Davis’] cell phone while he recorded the interaction between the parties.”

Davis was ordered back onto the plane to retrieve his belongings, and once there — as noted in the lawsuit — had one final interaction with the flight attendant, which he also captured on video. In the video, a voice can be heard saying “he has a gun now” over the loudspeaker, an accusation which Davis claims in his lawsuit was false and hadn’t been brought up until that point. As he left the plane, Davis thought there would be police waiting for him in the terminal.

“The whole time I’m sitting there, thinking that there’s about to be all these cops that are about to point their guns at me, or they’re gonna see my phone and think it’s a gun and kill me,” he said. “I’m thinking there could have been an Air Marshal on the plane that could have attacked me.”

“I just felt so alone. I’m just thinking to myself, ‘I’m gonna die. Nobody’s gonna know my story; all they’re going to know is there’s a Black kid in the hoodie and some sweats that just got gunned down by these cops because a flight attendant said he had a gun.’” Davis continued. “I shouldn’t have to wear a suit and tie everywhere I have to go. I should be able to wear what I want to wear. I shouldn’t have to explain to people that my hoodie wasn’t on. Why do I have to say that? Why can’t I just be a human being that’s on a plane ride to go perform?”

But when he deplaned, Davis said that “the staff was extremely apologetic to me and they didn’t even pat me down. They knew that I didn’t have a gun. There was a kid that recognized me from TikTok.”

One of the airline’s agents also recognized him from his work in the movie “Detroit.”

“While me and the operations supervisor were telling her the story, she just broke down and started crying,” Davis recalled. “She said, ‘All I can think about is my little kid and watching that movie and seeing that happen to you.’”

In the 2017 film, Davis plays Aubrey Pollard Jr., who was gunned down by police at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit rebellions — and the actor tells Variety that he thought of the movie in the moment, as well.

“Being that character, I had to really go through months of living that situation, so when that situation on the plane happened, it brought me back to my character,” Davis said. “It brought me back to those images and those videos that I was watching to prepare for that situation.”

Davis urges the entertainment industry to make changes, saying that he feels the negative images of Black people portrayed on screen contribute to stereotypes.

“I think that a lot of reasons why people view African Americans that way, has a lot to do with the entertainment industry,” he explained. “Every role that I’ve basically gotten has been the thug kid or the kid who’s from the hood hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

“I feel like we need to change that. We need to have more positive roles. We need to show African Americans in a positive light,” Davis continued, pointing to superhero films like “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as positive examples of Black men in media. “We just have to show a Black guy graduating from Harvard, show a Black guy saving lives, and not just the thugs and ‘I grew up without a dad’ and that whole negative aggression they put on us.”

Despite growing up in the suburbs of Memphis, Tenn., and never having any trouble with authorities, Davis said his parents taught him how to act if the situation arose.

“My mom has always told me to be calm when it comes to situations like that,” he recalled. “She’s always told me what I should do when the cops pull me over — just always comply and don’t talk back, and just listen to them.”

Davis was eventually moved to another flight and made it to his final destination. The airline upgraded him to first class.

Once he landed in Nashville, Davis performed as planned at the wedding of Erin Foster (daughter of music legend David Foster). But it was an emotionally taxing concert for both Davis and his mother, Sofea Watkins, who had traveled separately to meet her son in Tennessee for the gig.

“I had to dummy down my emotions, so that he wouldn’t get emotional, so that he can still have his head in the game, to be able to perform,” said Watkins, who also serves as one of her son’s managers. “It was such a sad time, though. Both of us couldn’t even really feel the whole impact of the thing because we had to move on because he had to go perform.”

“We had to literally act like nothing happened,” Davis added. “I had to get on a stage, I had to sing my heart out and act like nothing happened to me. And that was one of the hardest things.”

For now, Davis is waiting on an official response from the airline. His attorney George Mallory said that a letter sent to the airline in January formally complaining about the incident went unanswered.

Davis said he’s working through the emotions of this experience and seeing a therapist to deal with paranoid thoughts and nightmares.

“I was humiliated,” Davis said. I was embarrassed. Just feeling so powerless and that my life didn’t matter, it really took a toll on me. I’m having PTSD moments. I break down every time I’m talking about the situation to people.”

Since the suit was filed, Davis has been receiving messages of support on social media. “People are saying that this just needs to stop, that there needs to be a change,” Davis said. “I’m just happy that people are speaking up about the situation and standing with me.”