Whether it’s jumping out of a building or driving a burning truck through traffic, there’s no question Black stunt performers are crucial to the success of all types of movies and shows. From “Tenet” to “Black Panther,” their death-defying work has helped several recent blockbusters deliver stunning action sequences.
However, their contributions are often overlooked. As the conversation about representation in all Hollywood disciplines grows, stunt casting, which isn’t often addressed, is finally getting a closer look.
Black performers, who regularly put their lives in danger, say the biggest barriers to greater visibility are employers not making the effort to widen their networks. The practice of “painting down” white stunt performers as stand-ins for performers of color, which continues to this day, has called attention to racist practices in the industry.
Spurred by events such as recent coverage of Michelle Rodriguez’s white stunt double in the “Fast and Furious” films, members of the stunt community issued a letter to SAG-AFTRA last week highlighting issues of racism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny.
Likewise, “Stargirl” actor Anjelika Washington called out a blackface incident as late as 2017 on her Instagram page. “My 4th job as an actor, my first recurring guest star, and my first time having a stunt double — and they painted her black,” she wrote this summer, helping kick off the conversation on diversity and representation.
Tiffany Abney, who has doubled for Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler — and fell off the “H” in the iconic sign in Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood’’ when she stood in for Laura Harrier — has also used social media to spotlight the world of stunts: “I called on my fellow Black stuntmen and stuntwomen to post pictures of themselves on social with actors they’ve doubled using the hashtags #BlackStuntWomenExist, #BlackStuntMenExist, #BlackStuntDoublesExist, #BlackStuntPerformersExist.”
The initiative drew responses not just from the stunt world but from actors Alfre Woodard, Nia Holloway, Jurnee Smollett and Shireen Crutchfield, who posted photos with their stunt doubles to raise awareness.
Abney got to know more stunt people than ever, she says: “I was able to find that many Black stunt people in 48 hours. I don’t know why it’s hard for stunt coordinators to find people of color.”
Black performers are hoping to move past the conversations surrounding misrepresentation. “I want to focus more on the light than the dark,” says “Black Panther” stuntman Terrence Julien. “That light being the strides Black stuntmen and Black stuntwomen are taking to make a change and rise above the challenges and barriers they face.”
But stunt performers don’t have agents working for them in the same way that leading actors do. Like many jobs in Hollywood, getting a gig in the stunt world depends more on who you know than on what you can do.
Stunt people of color say it’s hard to get a foot in the door. Julien, a trained marksman and scuba diver who doubled for Chadwick Boseman in “42” and for Marlon Wayans in “A Haunted House 2,” praises the late “Mission Impossible III” performer Conrade Gamble and Tom Elliot (“Criminal Minds”) for guiding him, but he says the old ways of doing business are hindering careers.
“Without agents pushing, stunt coordinators don’t know who you are,” he says. “They don’t know your capabilities, so you remain out of sight.”
“Wonder Woman 84” stuntwoman Cheryl Lewis, who has doubled for Aunjanue Ellis, Alfre Woodard and Regina Hall, believes the decision about who gets the job starts before a director calls action. “If the writer doesn’t list the race or gender, the default casting is white male,” she says.
The situation won’t change until coordinators put more effort into researching other approaches to hiring. “A white male is hired as a coordinator,” Lewis says. “He doesn’t know what to do, so he asks another white male. They don’t know any Black female stunt performers.”
Stunt performers say it’s time to focus on nurturing the coming generations. Julien is working hard to guide up-and-coming stunt people in the same way that Gamble mentored him. “I want to make myself readily available for any Black stunt performer that comes my way,” he says.
Jadie David, who doubled for Pam Grier in 1974’s “Foxy Brown” and later appeared in “Sudden Impact” and “Escape from L.A.,” considers herself lucky to have gotten in the business at the start of the Blaxploitation era.
She credits fellow stuntman Bob Minor for putting her in movies. “Back then it was different,” she says. The question was about how to make things work once you had the job. “I needed to do a car hit, I would be training the week before, learning to do it,” David says.
While she was fortunate, she says as an African American woman she faced far greater obstacles than her white peers. But like Lewis, Abney and Julien, she sees it as vital to pay it forward.
“Women are working more because there’s so much exposure because of people who paved the way before them. They made everything we did worth it.”
Some performers are optimistic that the picture is changing. Abney has seen a spike in veteran stunt performers reaching out to newcomers. “They have so much experience to offer and to help someone else be better and to train a better way,” she says. “I appreciate that people are beginning to step up and take a leadership role.”