What it’s like to be a black female stunt performer
Seven women from three generations share their experiences — the good and the bad
Photos and Story By Saeed Rahbaran
In the world of stuntwomen and stuntmen, the audience typically knows little about who is performing. If the job is being executed correctly, viewers may not even realize that their favorite film star was doubled. Makeup, hair preparation and strategic camera techniques disguise these talented daredevils during death-defying, action-packed movies.
Behind the scenes, stunt performers have always faced issues of race and gender inequality. White men and women occupy the foreground while those of color jump through hoops to secure jobs. Keeping their mouths closed about common practices such as blackface, paint downs (a more extensive version of blackface) and wiggings (in which men portray women) protects stunt performers of color from being blackballed. Black women suffer twofold, fighting not to be replaced by painted-down white women or men in wigs acting as women.
Jadie David, the first African-American woman to make a living in Hollywood as a stunt performer, was a key figure in the Black Stuntmen’s Association, which was formed in 1967, and co-founder of the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women in 1973. Members of the group filed complaints against the major studios with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, exposing Hollywood’s discrimination against stunt performers of color.
Over the years, this industry has changed significantly and the number of stuntwomen of color has risen. Unfortunately, issues of race and gender inequality are still prevalent. Stunt coordinators, responsible for hiring talent, continue to resort to old habits such as wiggings and paint downs with excuses such as “It was our only option at the time” or “There just wasn’t anyone experienced enough to complete the job.”
So how does this industry end such inequalities? Women must inform stunt coordinators of the abundant and readily available stuntwomen of color capable of accomplishing the job. Film stars must make sure they are not being doubled by someone of a different race or gender. Halle Berry and Whoopi Goldberg are among some of the most famous to make sure these practices do not occur on their sets. The older generation of stuntwomen must educate the up-and-comers, explaining the history of the industry and showing these young women how far things have moved forward and how to keep doors open for the next generations to come.
Below are seven African-American stunt performers who have risked it all on and off set.
“I didn’t aspire to be a stuntwoman, it was thrown at me. … I was a tomboy. I had a bunch of brothers growing up. I was an adrenaline junkie, naturally.”
“There’s not really anything I can’t do. I was a casting director, actress, choreographer, dancer. You’re going to be poor in this business if you do just one thing.”
“I came to L.A. to pursue acting and then I fell in love with [stunt work]. It’s a type of immediate feedback that makes you feel empowered.”
“It makes me mad to know that the older generation of women had to go through [paint downs and wiggings]. It makes me so appreciative and thankful to be working right now; they paved the way for us.”
“I was always in some type of sport. Gymnastics, dancing, basketball, track and field … you name it, I did it.”
“If you conceive it, believe it, you can achieve it. And I try to instill that into these young ladies.”
“We opened some doors, and some amazing talent walked through those doors. We are so proud of those people. There are some exceptional women that walked through those doors.”
Danielle A. Scruggs is a photo editor for The Undefeated. She is a Chicago native and firmly believes no sports team will ever be as great as the Chicago Bulls during their three-peat eras.