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Hollywood’s Stunt Industry Grapples With Issues of Race, Skin Color and Blackface

In August, a photo surfaced of a boy in an Afro wig with makeup-darkened skin standing in for 11-year-old African-American actor Keith L. Williams on the Vancouver set of “Good Boys,” a comedy about three sixth-graders who ditch school and wind up on a road trip. The image sparked online outrage, and Seth Rogen, one of the film’s producers, quickly apologized, declaring that on all future projects his team would “take every precaution to make sure something similar does not take place again.”

It turned out that the boy in the makeup, reportedly the son of a stuntman, was African-American but had a lighter skin tone than Williams.

The revelation doesn’t change the disturbing nature of the visual — which summons the racist specter of blackface. But it speaks to challenges facing the stunt community as it grapples to provide minority representation in a charged sociopolitical atmosphere where a job can be lost over an inappropriate tweet.

The producers of “Good Boys” merely needed someone to sit there while the cinematographer lit the scene, so it’s hard to argue that a child matching Williams’ pigmentation couldn’t have been easily found. But when it comes to choosing a stunt double for an actor, matching the skin tone isn’t nearly as important as finding proper skills and a similar facial and body structure, which means that sometimes black stunt workers end up shading their complexions with makeup.

“Black people come in so many colors,” says African-American stuntwoman Jwaundace Candece, founder of Stunt POC, an online directory for stunt people of color. “I don’t think it’s blackface to paint them the same skin tone as the actor or to go lighter. I’ve done lighter; I’ve done darker. It’s not a racist thing. I’ve heard some actors have a problem with that, but I’ve doubled Viola Davis, and she’s several shades darker than me. She was just happy to have a black stuntwoman.”

The issue becomes more complex when multiracial performers are involved. Vin Diesel, who identifies as a person of color, has routinely used Caucasian stunt doubles, and Zendaya, whose father is black, is regularly doubled by white stuntwoman Mallory Thompson, without the necessity of employing makeup or darkening their skin.

“Some Caucasian people get a tan, then they say it’s OK,” says African-American stuntwoman Kelsee Devoreaux, recalling a tense conversation with a white stuntwoman who listed doubling Halle Berry on her résumé. “She said, ‘I can do that,’ because Halle Berry’s mixed and she’s doubling from her white side. But we talked, [and] at the end of our conversation she said she’d never do that again, because I explained to her the plight” of black stunt performers.

SAG-AFTRA represents stunt performers, and it doesn’t offer a breakdown of members by race or sex. The stunt community is a tight one, with referrals often coming from friends. Productions looking for a hard-to-find skill set might cast their net wider, possibly to include companies that recommend performers. 

For most of cinema’s first century, when a black actor needed to be doubled for an action sequence, a white stunt person coated in dark makeup would step in, a practice known as a “paint down.” Paint downs are supposed to be a thing of the past, but they still happen. Devoreaux explored filing a lawsuit after a white stuntwoman was painted down on the set of Fox TV’s “Gotham” in 2014, but she was thwarted by the language of the SAG-AFTRA Basic Agreement, which states that a “stunt coordinator shall endeavor to cast qualified persons of the same sex and/or race involved.”

“Stunt coordinators know nothing can be done to them because the rule said that they should ‘endeavor’ to find the same race; it didn’t say they had to,” says Devoreaux. “So they say, ‘Shut the f–k up. I’m going to do what I want to do.’” 

The typical argument for the coordinator is that the stunt requires a highly specialized skill and a qualified person of the appropriate race and/or gender is not available. Such a rationale is unlikely to be valid if the stunt is a fight or a fall — where digitally erasable safety wire can be employed — but it might be within reason with car and motorcycle stunts, which have greater potential to injure or worse. 

That argument gained traction in August 2017 when African-American motorcycle road racer Joi “SJ” Harris was killed shooting her first-ever stunt on the Vancouver set of “Deadpool 2,” leading to accusations in the stunt community that she was hired because of political pressure to match the ethnicity of actress Zazie Beetz.

“The producers are enhancing that stuff that society has gone crazy with,” says a veteran white stuntman who asked not to be named. “If it’s written for a black guy and there are no black guys to do it, they should be able to use a white guy. But it’s just not that way. Then people actually die or get hurt.”

A source cites a Los Angeles-based stuntwoman of color with experience doing the trick that killed Harris. But expediency comes into play; productions are loath to increase costs if a stunt performer isn’t local and available immediately. 

In reality, stunt coordinators don’t seem to have a problem finding qualified stunt performers of color, insiders say. The prevalent issue is their inability — or unwillingness — to find qualified women. The stunt community is rife with stories of stuntmen both white and black doubling actresses, a practice known as “wigging.”

“If you’re racing cars and jumping across ditches and things like that, it takes a lot more strength,” says veteran stunt coordinator Conrad Palmisano, but he allows that situations where a need for brawn necessitates a man replacing a woman are “a rarity.” 

To white stuntwoman Deven MacNair, production excuses ring hollow when stunt performers don’t match either the sex or race of the actor. MacNair filed an EEOC lawsuit over a wigging” incident on the set of the 2018 film “The Domestics.”

“I think in this day and age,” she maintains, “it’s hard for a stunt coordinator to look [people] in the eye and say there are no qualified women or people of color. ” 

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