Donnie Ray Banks
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
You might not know the following figures—but you should. In Campus Characters, The Blue and White introduces you to a handful of Columbians who are up to interesting and extraordinary things and whose stories beg to be shared. This issue, we bring you two campus power couples who aren’t couples. If you’d like to suggest a Campus Character, send us an email at email@example.com.
“I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jests…” Halfway through our interview in Central Park’s North Woods, Donnie Ray Banks, GS ’16, recalls a monologue from Much Ado About Nothing.
Banks learned the monologue for a showcase while studying at a community college near his home in North Carolina. “I love to play the bad guy, but I don’t do it a lot,” he says. Actually, he is a seriously good guy: I lose my wallet during the interview; after searching through piles of leaves for me, he emails the next morning to see if I found it.
Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, he followed the rules of his single mother, a strictly religious Pentecostal. She told him he could do whatever he wanted. But his hometown’s manufacturing industry collapsed in the 90s, and the army, he says, felt like “kind of my only way.” He entered training early in 2001, at the age of 17. On 9/11, he says, he knew that he was going to war.
Banks hadn’t even had his growth spurt yet. Having never rebelled in high school—“I was like a small adult,” he says—he had his first brush with insubordination in the army, where he found the rules arbitrary. “I always did better if I had a clear mission and I had something to do, otherwise I felt like it was pointless,” he says. So in 2003, while stationed in Saudi Arabia, he volunteered to drive convoys in Iraq. He drove the ten-hour route from Balad to Mosul, where roadside bombs, officially known as improvised explosive devices, were not uncommon.
In the army, an outlet for what he calls his “rage against the machine, as cliché as that sounds,” was acting, even just in training scenarios. Banks spent seven months at war and returned home, working construction gigs and truck driving before going to community college. When he arrived, theater was the only major he was interested in. His theater instructor encouraged him to apply to GS and wrote his recommendation.
He had already applied when he went to New York for the first time to see a Broadway show with a theater class, and decided he could live in the city, if he got in. Banks got his acceptance letter the day he was meant to sign a lease at Appalachian State in Boone, NC—the only other school he applied to—and sold “just about everything I owned that was worth money” to make the move to the city.
At GS, Banks changed his medium of expression to film, working on scripts and volunteering as a judge for a film festival. Though he wasn’t allowed to watch horror movies or celebrate Halloween as a kid, he loves horror—he’s writing a paper on Cold War B-grade movies. But he worries about violence, and wouldn’t want to write language he couldn’t show to his mother.
It’s the sort of paradox that defines Banks: wholesomeness and rebellion. He got tattoos on his neck to barely brush the army’s regulations. (They would be covered by a uniform tie.) But the images are Chinese characters for love and hate. “You face toward love and away from hate,” he explains. The rest of Banks’ tattoos give clues to his life: on one hand is a Korean friend’s signature chopstick drawing, tattooed on a dare; on the other a shamrock with a motto, “Make your own luck.” On his ear is the name of his daughter, Lani, who he gave up for adoption as a baby nine years ago. He’s most proud of his sleeve, the colorful image taken from a 2003 calendar he found in Iraq. There’s also a barcode on his wrist—“I wanted to reject labels by labeling myself … I was nineteen!”
Now, he’s getting some tattoos removed. “I’m at the age where I’m tired of making the statement,” he says. But with plans to use the rest of his GI Bill for a masters in production filmmaking, that’s exactly what he hopes to be doing.