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Oscars 2017

Black Stuntmen’s Association wants the Oscars to add ‘stuntin’

The ‘Hidden Figures of Hollywood’ speak out on how there are more African-Americans, but not enough

On the heels of 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, there was noticeably more diversity in the Academy Awards nominations this year, particularly in the major categories. But members of a trailblazing group of black performers who led a historic fight against Hollywood some 40 years ago – and won – say one category is still missing.

Willie Harris and fellow members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association (BSA), an organization lauded as the first of its kind to actively support and recruit both stunt performers of color and stuntwomen of all ethnicities, say they’re disappointed that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that puts on the annual awards show, has not added a category for stunt coordinators, those who hire stunt performers and oversee stunts in films, particularly action flicks that require complex and risky physical work.

Harris is also disappointed that the organization that he leads was not specifically invited to join in several recent demonstrations held in support of the more than two decades-long fight by the stunt community to get a stunt coordinators category added to the Oscars (a bicoastal protest led by the mostly white Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures last year in New York City and in Los Angeles near the academy offices reportedly yielded a petition with more than 80,000 signatures).

“We were the first to speak up for inclusion in Hollywood and [adding this category] is just another part of that,” said Harris, 75. “Even though we weren’t invited to participate [in the demonstrations], we support the stunt coordinators; they definitely deserve to be honored.”

Fellow BSA member Jadie David, 66, who doubled for iconic actress Pam Grier during her heyday in the ’70s, agrees: “It’s really an art form and should be acknowledged as such,” said David. “I believe that they should be acknowledged because [in so many ways] the action makes a movie.”

Taking on Hollywood head-on

Harris’ expressed support for the stunt coordinators category addition to the Oscars is both expected and ironic. The BSA has a long track record of spearheading and supporting diversity initiatives in Hollywood. However, it was those same feelings that Harris still speaks of today – a lack of inclusion – that inspired him and a group of 25 black stuntmen to found the organization in 1967. Their goal was to provide a platform for black stuntmen to network, train and, in many respects, help quell the sting of racism that permeated both their personal and professional lives. It didn’t take long, he said, for the organization to expand to include “women and other minorities” who also felt shut out of Tinseltown.

BSA members endured many disparities over the years, including some that led to lawsuits. In the early days, hands-on training was hard to come by, so they trained each other. But it was all of the emotional touchy-feely-Dr.-Phil-meets-Oprah support they extended each other, that members say, helped them to endure the perils (and the pain) of working in an industry that seemed determined to push them out or ignore them altogether.

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Courtesy of Black Stuntmen's Association

“They are the Tuskegee Airmen of the film and television; they’re the Hidden Figures of Hollywood,” said Nonie L. Robinson, granddaughter of late founding BSA president Ernie Robinson. He doubled for actor Philip Michael Thomas on the Miami Vice television series in the ’80s and worked on the films King Kong, the original Planet of the Apes and Greased Lightning. “They stood up for racial and gender equality in Hollywood at a time when it was unpopular and while doing so, they endured every form of racism and discrimination imaginable; they were overlooked for hiring and even when they were [hired], they often were mistreated on the set, called names and even denied access to adequate safety equipment.”

Instead of lying down and feeling, well defeated, BSA members channeled their emotions and their unsavory experiences into action, filing a groundbreaking lawsuit that would eventually force most of the major Hollywood studios to start hiring more women, people of color and other underrepresented groups in all areas of the industry – from makeup artistry, production and sound to directing, cinematography and acting.

“We are the ones who changed Hollywood; we are the reason you can see a Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and a Denzel Washington on the big screen today,” said Harris. “We didn’t just fight for blacks – we fought for the rights of women and other minorities too.”

The lawsuit focused on two discriminatory employment practices that many assert still persists today: “the paint-down,” the practice of putting dark makeup on white stunt performers and also the “wig down,” dressing stuntmen as women in wigs and dresses instead of hiring stunt performers of color or stuntwomen, respectively, to do the work.

In 1976, 27-year-old Margaret Ryan Kreeger, a recent University of San Francisco School of Law graduate, filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges against the major film and television studios on behalf of BSA members over a failure to enforce previous federal orders against discriminatory hiring. Kreeger worked as a trial attorney for the EEOC.

“Thankfully at that time I didn’t realize that you can’t just go out and sue [the big Hollywood studios], because had I known, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” said a laughing Kreeger, who still practices law. “But I had to do what I could to help. They put their lives and careers on the line to speak up on an issue and it wasn’t just for and about black people in the industry. It was such a slap in the face for them [in Hollywood] to go out of their way to paint down a white person and put a man in a wig than to hire qualified candidates of color and women.”

Though far from a household name, the BSA has been lauded for its efforts: It won an NAACP Image Award in 2012 and state legislators in California, Mississippi and Nevada have formally acknowledged the organization. Harris is scheduled to be honored March 7 at the 14th annual College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame celebration at the University of Las Vegas. Hands down the BSA’s biggest honor to date, though, is having its memorabilia, props, photos and news articles about the organization featured in the Hollywood-themed Taking The Stage exhibit at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Being at that museum and seeing our memorabilia in the Smithsonian was emotional; it truly gave a sense of our contributions to the industry,” said David, who lives in the Los Angeles area. “Being a part of that museum is definitely the biggest accomplishment of my career. I am sure most of us felt that way after being there.”

While in Washington, D.C., for the museum’s grand opening, some BSA members met with U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan and the longest-serving active member of Congress, to discuss ways to aid in their mission to “permanently eradicate gender and race discrimination in Hollywood.”

“It is disturbing that more than 50 years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, there is still unaddressed race and gender issues in some industries, including the entertainment industry,” said Conyers, who has spearheaded a Hollywood civil rights campaign. “It’s critical that we continue to have tough, earnest dialogue about these issues and shed light on them in order to progress.”

Breaking barriers

Despite the BSA’s legal victory in the ’80s, many complaints of discrimination still pour in that the paint-down and wig-down continues in the stunt industry and about a lack of diverse hiring in Hollywood overall. The BSA has joined forces with veteran stuntwoman Julie Johnson, who is white, on an effort to get Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union that represents all Hollywood film and television workers, to make changes to its contracts. Johnson met with SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris and several other Guild officials in January. During the meeting, she presented a 75-page report detailing her concerns, most of which are shared by the BSA, and included recommendations for change.

“The guild’s current contract states that stunt coordinators must ‘endeavor’ to cast qualified persons of the same sex and/or race’ as the person being doubled; language like that allows the discriminatory practices to continue as long as they make some minimal effort to find a stunt performer of the same gender and ethnicity as the actor being doubled,” said Johnson, who for many years worked as a stunt double on the ’80s television series Charlie’s Angels. She said she was ultimately blackballed in the industry in 1983 for speaking out about the “circle of oppression” in Hollywood, particularly the sexual harassment many stuntwomen face on film and television sets. “We want ‘endeavor’ changed to ‘must.’ If we accomplish that alone, that would be a huge success.” Johnson is also pushing for fines, a minimum of $10,000, to be imposed each on any producer, director or stunt coordinators found guilty of violating contract terms.

SAG-AFTRA spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said the organization “does not discuss private member meetings nor confidential information that may arise out of those conversations,” but emphasized that “SAG-AFTRA’s commitment to diversity – and to encouraging diverse hiring by our employers – is very well-known.” Added Greenwalt: “We take every opportunity to strengthen our contracts and will continue to ensure equal access to job opportunities, provide protection to those who work under our contracts and encourage greater inclusion throughout our jurisdiction as we have for decades.”

Robinson, of Los Angeles, is collecting donations to complete a documentary about the BSA that she hopes will be released in early 2018. She and Cecilia Peck, daughter of late Hollywood star Gregory Peck, are co-producing Breaking Bones, Breaking Barriers with musical icon Quincy Jones serving as executive producer. The film, which includes interviews with BSA members, activists, journalists and acclaimed Hollywood stars Lou Gossett Jr. and Whoopi Goldberg, was recently named Documentary of the Week by the International Documentary Film Association.

As for Harris, he spoke with academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs by phone last year and shared the BSA’s story and requested that the academy formally honor members for their industry contributions. He said he is still holding out hope that it’ll happen before the close of 2017, which marks the BSA’s 50th anniversary.

Either way, Harris said, he and his stunt brethren and sistren remain committed to the fight for more diversity in Hollywood. Perhaps David sums it up best: “Like that famous [1937] quote [by Jewel Vertner Woodson Tandy], ‘we will fight until hell freezes over and then we will fight on the ice!’ ”

Chandra Thomas Whitfield is a multiple-award-winning multimedia journalist whose work has appeared with NBCBLK, The Huffington Post, People, Essence, Ebony and on NPR. In 2016 she won five writing awards, including a Clarion Award from The Association for Women in Communications.