stuntmen - black stuntmen & women

Claxssic photo of black stuntmen & stuntwomen

*Members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association (BSA) are angry and appalled that Hollywood’s Warner Bros. is still practicing “painting down.”  Despite the decades-long, rocky history between Warner Bros. and the Black Stuntmen’s Association, this did not deter the studio recently from casting a white stuntwoman to play the double for a black guest actress on its Fox’s hit show, “Gotham.”

However, after a reporter from Deadline Hollywood confronted Warner Bros., they quickly scrapped the plan to “paint down” a white stuntwoman.

“The Black Stuntmen’s Association has always had capable and talented “Stunt Doubles” ready and able to do any and all stunts that are required for the job at hand.  And yet, our accomplishments are overlooked at every turn,” says Willie Harris, stunt pioneer and president of The Black Stuntmen’s Association. “I am angry and appalled to hear that in the 21st Century, Warner Bros. is still practicing the act of ‘painting down’ and has raised its ugly head again.”

“It’s really insulting that they would do that in the 21st century. Painting down is a very derogatory term and they know it and we know it, and it’s kind of embarrassing and insulting to start over again with the same issues 40 years later. The policies shouldn’t change from what is right to wrong,” says Alex Brown, a stunt pioneer and co-founder and secretary of the BSA.  “The paint down thing is the worst thing there is to do — period. We have to be vigilant about the facts, the situation and be aware that they are still doing it. When you think it’s all gone and moving on, it’s not.”

According to David Robb, “They took the white stuntwoman and put her through hair and makeup and they applied the black makeup on her, so that she could pass as the black guest star.”

Robb has covered issues in the film and television industry for more than 20 years.  Although, the white stuntwoman never made it on camera, the hair and makeup was done.

“It was insulting and demeaning for the black cast members on the show to see someone painted up like that, and it also made the white crew very uncomfortable. They were not happy about it either.”

The act of “painting down” white stunt actors so they can pass for black is still prevalent today, even though Blackface was supposedly discontinued back in the 1930s and SAG-AFTRA calls the practice “unacceptable” and “improper.”

Decades ago, The BSA broke color barriers in the ‘stunt profession’, won 32 EEOC lawsuits, opening the door for Black actors and other minorities, and white females that were often denied access to the stunt world. In the 1970s, The Black Stuntmen’s Association encountered blatant disrespect and fought vigorously behind the scenes to ensure that Blacks and other minorities had the opportunity to serve as stunt doubles and jump off roofs, and crash cars.

“It’s offensive. It really shouldn’t happen,” says Jadie David, a retired Black stuntwoman and former Screen Actors Guild business rep.

Jadie David

Jadie David

In a recent interview with EUR, David reminisced about her 30-plus years as a stuntwoman and sheds light on the good and the bad.  “I have a little different experience than other people.  I was fortunate.  I came in the business when the Black Exploitation films were coming out. I was 5’9″ and I matched most of the African American actresses,” says David.  She was recruited and landed on the scene back in the 1970s, where  she gained work doing stunts for stars like Pam Grier, Denise Nicholas and others in blaxploitation films like “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown” and “The Soul of Nigger Charlie.” David also served as a stunt-double for Denise Nicholas in horseback, swimming and diving scenes on ABC’s “Room 222.”

Although the industry is male-dominated, she says she did not personally lose any work to painted-down doubles; however, she regularly saw others encounter that problem.

“Even though it came easy for me, I didn’t lose sight because I saw how it was hard for others to get in,” she explains.  David’s first job was a double for Actor Denise Nicholas for the movie, “The Soul of Nigger Charlie” which also starred Fred Williamson. “I didn’t struggle to get in the business I kind of fell in it because of my size, my height and some of the skills I have.”

In 1965, Bill Cosby became the first Black lead character in a dramatic TV series, “I Spy,” and stunt performer Calvin Brown became Cosby’s double.  Both broke the color barrier with “I Spy.”  Brown would go on to serve as Cosby’s stuntman for many years.  Brown is said to be the first African American stuntman recognized in Hollywood, and he was one of the co-founders of the BSA.  He also did Black stunt work for other TV series such as “Mission Impossible,” “The Wild Wild West,” and movies, “The Split,” “I Spy Returns,” “Blank Check “ and others. Brown was the stunt double for actors Jim Brown and Greg Morris, and had a few small character roles.  In an upcoming documentary, “Painted Down,” Cosby speaks on his experience with “painting down”.

Davis added, “I was lucky enough to fall into a situation in the entertainment industry where I was needed.  They needed a person with my size, height and skill set. They needed me.”  However, it was a different story for most African American stuntmen and women.  In fact, things were difficult.  David says, “Marvin Walters, an African American stuntman contacted the U.S. Justice Department and a movement began in Hollywood to help ensure fair employment opportunities for women and people of color in front of and behind the camera.   Lawsuits were filed and won by Marvin and The Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women, and damages were paid to all stunt performers of color.  Finally, it seemed as if the status quo of selective hiring had seen its day.”

History of the Black Stuntmen’s Association

Founded in 1967 by Eddie Smith, Willie Harris, Alex Brown, Calvin Brown, Henry Kingi and others, The Black Stuntmen’s Association was started because the movie and television industry consistently denied black stuntmen and women the opportunity to perform in Hollywood.  Smith went to the NAACP and got the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) involved.  According to the BSA, they filed and fought 32 Studio Lawsuits and won all 32 of the cases of discrimination in the workplace. “The BSA was the first to stand up to the Movie studios against racism back in the late 60s and 70s fighting for all minorities,” says Harris.  Despite the name of the organization, the organization represented stuntwomen pioneers, Evelyn Cuffee and Jadie David.

stuntmen - alex brown & willie harris

Alex Brown & Willie Harris

“The Black Stuntmen’s Association broke the color barrier in the “stunt profession; opening the door not only for the black actors, but for all minorities, including white females, that wanted to get into the stunt world. There were no black cameramen, no black makeup artists, no black script writers; no blacks behind the camera at all, but the BSA changed all that with our fight for equal justice in the Motion Picture and Television industry,” says Willie Harris.  “And, by fighting for our rights to work in the entertainment field, we changed the minds of the big movie mogul, for the good of all.”

Harris added, ” Once this door opened, actors like, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Will Smith, Forest Whitaker, Tyler Perry, and many, many more were able to walk on to the sound stage, and become the mega stars they are today, with the help of the “Black Stuntmen’s Association doubling the stunts for all these great actors.”

“And, we were able to open these doors of opportunity with the collaboration of people like, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Lou Gossett, Jr.,  Ivan Dixon, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Tamara Dobson, Lola Falana, Rosalind Cash and Diana Sands, to name a few,” says Harris.

David says instead of screaming and yelling about the “paint down,” go to the Screen Actors Guild and request they correct the language of the contract. David worked for SAG and she learned the language.

“It needs to be negotiated with stronger language, so it won’t be practiced or allowed,” says David.  “The Screen Actors Guild needs to step up to the plate and establish language.”

She added, “We can really have this stopped. They need to negotiate in the television and theatrical contracts that you cannot do ‘paint down.’”  Their hands are tied because they have no language to reinforce it as it pertains to paint down.”

BSA’s Future

BSA is struggling to keep the organization going and would like to see the younger African American stuntmen and stuntwomen join their organization.  Harris and the remaining members are mostly elderly now, some in their seventies and still fighting for the BSA, but they are ready to pass the torch.

“I need to pass the torch off to the younger guys but it isn’t beneficial to the Black stunt guys because they are part of the white organizations,” says Harris.

“Younger Black stuntmen tend to not make a lot of noise. They are not part of the organization and were not part of it back in the day. “The younger actors like Denzel, Spike Lee, Will Smith and others today have never supported us. I wonder where they stand on this.  If they start speaking out on this it wouldn’t happen at all,” says Brown.

“We’re on a movement again to try to curve this situation again. Jobs are already scarce for Black stunt people, especially Black women,” says Brown.

The BSA is currently filming a documentary of the story of the black stuntmen’s fight and struggle for Equal Rights in the movie and television industry, with the help of renowned Oscar-nominated Actor Elliot Gould, and the Academy Award-winner Actor, Louis Gossett, Jr.

Phyllis Linda Ellis, a BSA member and writer, is writing the documentary. A book deal is also in the works and will be written by Michael Lyle of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“Painted Down,” a new documentary by film producer Nonie Robinson, the daughter of icon black stuntman Ernie Robinson recalls Bill Cosby and others recount of Black Stuntman’s early Hollywood struggles. Directed by Marques Miles, the documentary is scheduled to be released in 2015.

For additional information, visit www.blackstuntmensassociation.com.

 

Angela P. Moore-Thorpe is a freelance writer for local and national magazines. She is also a Public Relations Consultant at APM Public Relations (www.apmpublicrelations.com).