Black Stuntwomen Are Ready To Fight — Will Hollywood Let Them?
Blackface and “painting down” are causing a major uproar in the stunt community — but for many Black stuntwomen, they’re only symptoms of a much deeper problem.
In July, Anjelika Washington, who currently stars on CW’s Stargirl, shared a disturbing story on Instagram. In 2017, while she was working on a previous, unnamed project, she was introduced to her first-ever stunt double: a white woman in blackface.
When Washington pulled the producer aside to ask why she couldn’t get a Black woman as a double, she was told “Los Angeles doesn’t have many Black stunt performers,” and that she should be thankful to be working at all. In the end, Washington wrote that the incident motivated her to do her own stunts, so that a double wouldn’t be needed. But her experience — shared by many other Black performers in Hollywood, among them Riverdale’s Hayley Law and Station 19’s Jason Winston George, who responded in the comments — has shone a harsh light on yet another ugly gap in an industry that often only pays lip service to diversity.
“I am vowing to never ever allow these types of micro- and macro-aggressions to happen to me again. And you should not, either,” Washington wrote in that Instagram caption. “We must value ourselves higher even if they call us a diva. We must use our voice even if they call us loud. We must demand equality even if they call us ungrateful. The next generation depends on us.”
Hollywood has a long, troubling history of “painting down” white stunt performers to appear darker. In the 1960s, Black stars spoke out against the practice, which eventually led to the formation of the Black Stuntmen’s Association in 1967. By 1973, they had 15 members, including three women, one of the first stunt organisations to be co-ed. But though what was once an open practice is now done a little more covertly, it hasn’t entirely disappeared from sets in the United States
SAG-AFTRA, the labor union that governs over movie and television actors, personalities, singers, and performers, including those working in stunts, has publicly condemned paint-downs on multiple occasions, including in 2014, when news leaked that Gotham was planning to double one of its Black leads with a white woman in blackface. Faced with backlash, Warner Bros. TV decided against it, and apologised for what they called a “mistake” in casting. In the aftermath, Kelley L. Carter investigated the industry’s ongoing blackface problem for Buzzfeed. The scandal seemed big enough to ensure it never happened again. And yet, Washington’s experience, along with those continuing to chime in with their own stories, prove that’s not so. As late as 2018, Seth Rogen apologised for using a painted-down white stand-in for 11-year-old Keith L. Williams in Good Boys, which he produced along with Evan Goldberg.
The focus on the optics of stunt people in blackface is understandable — it’s an easy-to-understand visual cue of the prevalence of systemic racism. It’s also a symptom of much deeper problems. Black stunt performers — and Black stuntwomen in particular — face an uphill battle when it comes to getting work at all. Until recently, most of the discourse around diversity and inclusion in entertainment focused on getting more Black actors in lead parts and behind the camera in above-the-line roles, like writer or director. It’s only now that the lack of diversity in less prominent, below-the-line positions — like hair and makeup artists, assistant directors, and stunt performers — is getting some much-needed attention.
In response to Washington’s story, stuntwoman Tiffany Abney called on her fellow Black performers to post about their career trajectories and experiences. Using the hashtags, #BlackStuntWomenExist, #BlackStuntMenExist, #BlackStuntPerformersExist, #BlackStuntDoublesExist, she wrote: “There have been more and more roles for Black actors and actresses, which in theory means we as Black stunt performers should have more opportunity to shine!”
If only it were that simple. Black stuntwomen continue to face disproportionate barriers to enter the profession, a challenge that only gets more pronounced as they seek to advance in their careers. In order to get a better idea of the challenges they face, Refinery29 spoke to eight Black women working in stunts, who described workplace incidents ranging from micro-aggressions to outright hostility, as well as revealed how a lack of opportunities for professional mentorship inhibits their ability to increase their visibility and, in turn, get more jobs.
Jazzy Ellis has crashed through windows, been set on fire, and catapulted through the air while attached to a wire. Originally from New Jersey, and a graduate of Princeton University, Ellis was working as a teacher in New Orleans when someone in her martial arts class suggested she try out as a stunt performer.
“I ran into stunt performers who were telling me that there were no Black stuntwomen in Louisiana, and I filled a need. They could train me and get me into those spots,” she told Refinery29. After three months of hard core training, she landed her first job as “Big Beautiful Black Cop” in Adam Devine’s House Party on Comedy Central in 2014.
“Sexy hoochie Black woman, Black criminal, Black thug, Black gangster — if I’m not doubling the lead, it’s usually those kinds of descriptions [in the script],” Ellis said.
Eight years later, her credits now include Avengers: Endgame, Zombieland: Double Tap, The House with the Clock in Its Walls, Fate of the Furious, AMC’s The Walking Dead, A Quiet Place II, HBO’s Lovecraft Country, and the upcoming Suicide Squad sequel. And yet despite this impressive resume, Ellis says that the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying pause in work has made her consider her trajectory.
“Black people don’t have job security,” she told Refinery29 on a phone call. “The people in power take care of their own and they promote their own. I’ve been in the business for eight years and you’d think I’d be more skilled, or more well-known, or have more roles than I do now. I don’t, because there are no white men who are willing to take me under their wing and teach me what they know. They only call us when they need us. I get mostly what’s called ground-pounder roles — unskilled, just throw yourself on concrete kinds of roles. That’s what they give to Black women.”
Jadie David was one of the first Black stuntwomen to get steady work in Hollywood. In 1972, she got her start doubling for Denise Nicholas, and went on to double for legendary Blaxploitation star Pam Grier on films like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Sheba, Baby.
“I got lucky. I came in during Blaxploitation [boom], a time where there was a lot of work for a Black stuntwoman who was 5’9,” David told Refinery29. “I had struggles, but personally I want to say that they weren’t as bad as those other people have had. By standing up and being vocal, I was able to help the cause.”
In the mid-70s, she said, she teamed up with Marvin Walters — a stuntman who in 1971, had contacted the U.S. Justice Department about some of the racist practices he had observed on-set, and filed several complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — who filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women.
"[We] ended up winning the complaint, and got stuntpeople of colour monetary compensation for discrimination," David recalled.
And yet, real change remained elusive.
“It starts with white males at the top of the food chain,” David said. “And then, men of colour, and white women. They kind of teeter on top of who’s below. At the bottom of the list, there are women of colour. Generally, when you’re looking for people of colour, often the jobs go to men. When you’re looking for women, often you’re looking for white [women]. It doesn’t mean Black women don’t work, but they’re not the first ones that you think about.”
“Sexy hoochie Black woman, Black criminal, Black thug, Black gangster — if I’m not doubling the lead, it’s usually those kinds of descriptions [in the script]."
There are different categories of stunt work on any given project. Stunt coordinators work with producers, directors, and writers to hire and manage a stunt team; then there are those who work the machinery to make certain stunts possible, like riggers, who work the pulleys and ropes that ensure performers can fly through the air safely; and finally, there are performers, those who actually do the daring feats required in stunts. Different performers can specialise in different areas, like driving, fighting, riding, etc. One can be hired as a double to an actor or actress, work to train them to master the choreography needed for a particular scene, and also perform the more physically demanding, draw-dropping athletic feats. But those higher-profile jobs remain few and far between.
A more immediate alternative to ensure diversity lies in increasing the number of Black stunt performers hired in “nondescript” roles: crowds running away from a monster, people driving down a busy street, etc. Movies and TV shows require large numbers of these performers, who can be cast — as the name suggests — in roles having no specific physical description available. And yet, Black women are still rarely hired for these parts, with many producers, directors, and stunt coordinators insisting — like that anonymous producer in Washington’s Instagram — that there just aren’t enough qualified Black stuntwomen in Hollywood.
In 2018, Jwaundace Candece set out to fix that. The stuntwoman, who has doubled for Queen Latifah, Viola Davis, and Tiffany Haddish, among others, founded Stunt POC, an organisation advocating for stunt performers of colour. Based in Atlanta, Stunt POC also includes a directory, which can connect stunt coordinators with performers they might not ordinarily come across when they hire stunt doubles and for nondescript roles.
With just over 160 members and climbing, Stunt POC has allowed Candece to carve out space as a mentor to younger Black stuntwomen trying to break into a profession that seems built to exclude them. In early July, she organised a live Zoom conference with some of the top stunt coordinators in the United States and Canada — men and women — focusing on the need for diversity, during which members of Stunt POC were encouraged to ask questions and make connections.
Many of the stuntwomen Refinery29 spoke to said Candece had helped them review contracts, or given them advice on how to keep safe on the job. Ellis, in particular, credits Candece with warning her against taking a particularly risky project. According to Ellis, the men in charge of the stunts wanted to set her on fire and have her jump into a pond that hadn’t been surveyed, even after telling them she couldn’t swim.
“They trusted that I could learn how to swim and do the stunt within a week,” she said. “Who does that?”
It’s important to note that for most stunt coordinators, safety is priority number one, a notion corroborated by many of the women Refinery29 spoke to. Still, the stunt industry operates as something of a closed loop — often, a job will come down to who you know and who is willing to hire you. It’s the ultimate Hollywood insiders’ club, only it doesn’t typically come with fame, glory, or even much money. But it does operate with its own kind of logic: Because of the inherent risks that stunt performers are tasked with pulling off — and making look easy — they’re wary about working with anyone outside of their intimate circle.
In 2018, The Hollywood Reporter published an in-depth look at how the rise in peak TV has led to an increase in injuries and even deaths among stunt performers, as increased demand for productions leads to unqualified people being hired for jobs they aren’t able to do. Safety is paramount, and so stunt coordinators are likely to hire people they’ve worked with before, who have a proven track record. Likewise, directors and producers will hire stunt coordinators they know they can trust. But, this then means women and people of colour might never be given the opportunity to reach the upper echelons of the industry, because they’re never given the opportunity to even enter it. Claiming to only be concerned for safety is often just another way to maintain the status quo, and make Black stuntwomen feel like they don’t have what it takes.
Marché Day is one of the many women who has leaned on Candece. A new addition to the stunt community, she started training in October 2019, and was soon hired as a double for a high profile comic book based project she prefers not to name. Though her experience has been overwhelmingly positive so far, she’s always aware of the double standard at play when it comes to being a woman of colour in the industry.
“When we do get roles that accomplishment is taken from us,” Day said. “It’s like, Oh, you only got that role because you’re the only person that is the right colour. Even though I’m in the gym training every day, sometimes twice a day, you’re going to tell me I only got it because of my colour? No one tells you you got this part because you’re a white guy.”
Though Candece has over 19 years’ experience and 140 credits to her name — and the more than 500-working days suggested by SAG-AFTRA to qualify as a stunt coordinator herself — she hasn’t been given the chance to take on the challenge.
“I actually gave up on it,” she told Refinery29. “I got frustrated with asking people, Can I come watch you, come shadow you? There's always some excuse or most of the time I don't get returned calls. Even people who liked me and hired me, they're busy or they have their people.”
Only two Black women have worked as stunt coordinators in the United States. (Angelica Lisk-Hann, perhaps the most well-known Black woman stunt coordinator working today, is based in Canada.) The first to crash through that glass ceiling was La Faye Baker, a veteran stunt woman who worked on projects like Clueless; Independence Day; Sister Sister; Scary Movie 2; and Mission Impossible 3. In 1999, she was hired as the stunt coordinator for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, directed by Martha Coolidge and starring Halle Berry; Baker was the first Black woman to hold that position on a big budget project.
“One of my best friends — Eddie Watkins, who’s a male stunt coordinator — went in for the interview,” Baker told Refinery29. “But Halle specifically wanted all women in key positions, so I put storyboards together and went in there, and got the job.”
“When we do get roles that accomplishment is taken from us,” Day said. “It’s like, Oh, you only got that role because you’re the only person that is the right color."
Baker, who worked in stunts part-time for almost 30 years while also holding a job as a probation officer, says she regrets not making the jump to full-time stunt coordinator after that. Instead, she channeled her energy into creating the Action Icon Awards, recognising stunt performers and extreme sports enthusiasts, and Diamond in the RAW, a non-profit organisation that aims to empower at-risk girls between 12 and 18 through arts and STEM. Recently, she has renewed her interest in pursuing a career as a stunt coordinator — she co-coordinated stunts on the latest season of Issa Rae’s Insecure — but has been finding it difficult.
“It’s about choices. I think they don’t trust that women can do the same job as a man,” she said. “It’s really up to the producers. There are stunt coordinators who were just stunt men — and then somebody gave them an opportunity.”
According to Katie Rowe, president of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, women in general are underrepresented in coordinator positions. The organisation, founded in 1967 as an alternative to male-focused stunt associations — many of which still aren’t co-ed — represents the most elite women stunt performers working today, in an invite-only membership. It currently has 28 members, three of whom are Black women. Candace is one of them.
In an effort to even the playing field, SAG-AFTRA recently put together a new pathway towards stunt coordinator eligibility. In April 2020, a roster of stunt performers and coordinators who have completed their 500 days of work was released, so that productions can make sure that the people they are hiring are qualified. After 250 days, performers who are interested in pursuing this career path can have access to a list of volunteer stunt coordinator mentors, whom they can shadow for up to 25 days at no cost. Those days, while unpaid, will count towards their 500-day total.
As it did in so many other notable ways, Black Panther marked a turning point in visibility for Black stuntwomen. Ryan Coogler’s Marvel epic required over 200 people working in stunts as coordinators, riggers, and performers — the vast majority of them Black.
“Before that movie came out, you could probably count the amount of top-level Black stunt performers in this country at around a dozen,” Shahaub Roudbari, a stunt coordinator of Iranian descent who helped launch an initiative for Diversity in Stunts in June, explained to Refinery29. “But because of that movie, right now I could name 30 or 40 performers just in Atlanta more qualified and talented than people who've been doing this for over 20 years. They got that one opportunity.”
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Story Time 😀🦹🏾♀️ A year or so ago, I got a call from Thom Williams (@reactionstunts) saying that I was of interest in doubling an actress for a new HBO Tv Pilot. I didn’t know much about it besides the fact that I would be traveling to Atlanta for a few weeks and that it had the potential of continuing on to series. So, I waited and prepped myself for what I thought would only be a few weeks of work. Little did I know, the gates of my light were about to open and I would be in for an opportunity that wasn’t even present in my imagination. I had an amazing time, we finished the pilot and a few weeks later there’s a buzz in my ear saying that we might be going to series “sooner than we think”. Well, how soon? Who really knew... until a few (not so) patient months pass and Justin Riemer (@j.riemer_actiondirector) calls and gives me the green light! @hbo.watchmen came into my life as a gift from above and I never realized the magnitude of its impact until one day on set I was looking around, standing in my costume and across the way I’m staring at a Queen who trusts me, believes in me and encourages me to let my light shine so we can shine together. Experiences like this are never to be overlooked, and I thank you @iamreginaking for allowing me to find my presence in your life and I am beyond thankful for the ability to grow with you. It takes one person to roll a ball down a hill in order for it to begin moving and I thank @stuntpoc for allowing the ball to gain momentum. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have this story and these memories to share. I am thankful for Thom Williams (@reactionstunts) for taking the time and effort in finding the RIGHT double for an actress who deserves unwavering representation, and for Justin Riemer (@j.riemer_actiondirector), Super Dave (@davemacomber) and all of the other coordinators I’ve worked with in helping me to continue on and realizing that I exist. Also, shoutout to @tiffystunts for bringing our light and importance to the forefront and proving a platform to share our stories! 🙏🏾❤️ #BlackStuntWomenExist #BlackStuntMenExist #BlackStuntDoublesExist #BlackStuntPerformersExist #watchmen #blackisbeautiful
Sadiqua Bynum, an up-and-coming stunt performer who recently doubled for Regina King in Watchmen, was one of the stuntwomen cast as a member of the Dora Milaje, the all-women special guard to King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), led by Okoye (Danai Gurira). That job helped Bynum gain visibility among stunt coordinators, including Justin Riemer and Thom Williams, who then gave her a job on HBO’s Watchmen through Stunt POC. Bynum said she’s grateful to the many men who have been mentors to her, provided her with support and encouragement, and hired her for jobs she might not have gotten only a few years ago. But ultimately, she said, she's looking forward to the day Black women hold more positions of power on-set.
“A lot of my [women] mentors are the ones that went through the paint-downs, and they saw men get wigged when they could have done the role,” Bynum said. ”[Some of it] has to do with safety and all of that, but I think it’s also just not really believing that they could do it — I've also felt that too on a smaller scale. They weren't really given the opportunity to be able to even show their skills.”
“We’re starting to open up in terms of gender diversity, but in terms of racial diversity, [we’re behind],” Day added, echoing Bynum. “One of the few white female coordinators tafted me. She’s super talented, and while she’s been doing this for 20 years, it took 15 years of hard work to break through the ‘glass ceiling.’ How long is it going to take for a woman of colour to get there?”
“One of the first things a guy told me is, ‘Be careful, don’t befriend anyone with the same build, the same skin color as you.'”
With so few of their peers holding positions of power, younger Black stuntwomen are forced to look to each other for support. But even that is sometimes discouraged.
Nadia Lorencz, who doubled for Teyonah Parris on Marvel’s upcoming WandaVision series, recalled that while she was training, stuntmen would often warn her about getting too close to other Black stuntwomen, claiming that they might sabotage her in an attempt to secure one of the few jobs available.
“One of the first things a guy told me is, ‘Be careful, don’t befriend anyone with the same build, the same skin colour as you,” Lorencz told Refinery29. “And I was like, Oh gosh, do I just not trust anyone? How is that going to work?”
But with productions shut down during quarantine, she has found a vibrant community of Atlanta-based stuntwomen to connect with. In particular, she’s formed strong friendships with Day and Bynum, whom she met through training. During socially distant hikes, the three have been sharing advice and experiences, bolstering their physical workouts with emotional support that will help them navigate the industry once filming resumes.
“What they do is try to actively separate us,” Day added. “It’s easy to keep people weak if they’re separated — they know that we’re stronger together.”
Spending this time together has given them renewed hope for the future. As part of the new generation of Black stuntwomen taking on the industry, Day, Bynum, and Lorencz are determined to create a sisterhood that not only stands on the foundation built by the trailblazing women who came before them, but also ensures that their sacrifices won’t have been in vain. And judging by the Instagram posts in response to Washington’s paint-down story, it seems like this movement is only just beginning.
“We just want everyone to win,” Lorencz added. “There’s more than enough work out there for everyone.”
“I prayed for people like you guys in my life,” Day recalled telling Bynum and Lorencz recently. “Women who look like me, that I can trust, that I can call if I’m going through something, whether it be professional or personal. Just to have that makes a world of difference. Had I not met you, I probably wouldn’t be where I am.”