Inside Hollywood's Shocking Blackface Problem

A civil rights fight that was thought to have been eradicated years ago is nevertheless taking place in the entertainment industry. So why is Hollywood still "painting down" stuntpeople?

It felt like 1964 all over again.

The news spread quickly earlier this month in the small, tight-knit stuntperson community. As first reported by Deadline, a white body double was going to be painted down — the process of literally painting someone with darker skin — to appear as a black woman to do work for a black female actor who was guest-starring in the Fox drama Gotham, instead of hiring a black stuntperson in the first place. It isn't always that news like this gets publicized. For the most part, Hollywood labor union SAG-AFTRA almost never hears about it, even though the union is convinced it happens more often than not. A SAG-AFTRA representative told BuzzFeed News that they hear about instances like this one two or three times a year now. It's their hope that this never happens again.

To a small group of people in this particular community, it was as if the revolutionary work done some 50 years ago in the fight for equal rights — and specifically in Hollywood — didn't happen. Phone calls were made, questions were asked, and immediately, Warner Bros. Television, which produces the show, released a statement saying it regretted the incident and was hiring a black woman to fulfill the position.

A source close to the production told BuzzFeed News that it was a below-the-line staffer who made the decision to paint down a stuntperson in order to match a female guest star, and that the studio and Gotham executive producers believe this practice is unacceptable, and that it will not happen again.

Jadie David, a trailblazing stuntperson and the person who made sure the dust rose on this one, is satisfied.

For now, anyway.

When a 22-year-old David stepped onto her first Hollywood soundstage, she glanced around and took notice of what 1972 looked like.

Clearly, this was a moment. She was inspired. She would turn around and see someone else who looked like her. And she drank it in. The lead actors were black — as far as she could see, the fruits of the civil rights movement from five years earlier were at play here, and had unfolded in the microcosm on the set of Fred Williamson's star-making role.

The film was the Legend of Nigger Charley, the title jarring, to be sure. But the work — and the title in several cases — fell in line with what would later be coined blaxploitation films. This particular one was a Western and centered around a trio of escaped slaves who get fed up with the status quo, head out on their own, and dare a white man to threaten their newfound freedom; ultimately, this became one of Paramount's most successful films that year, and spurned two other sequels behind it.

Significantly, it was one of the first films that hired a black woman to do body-double work. That's why David was there. She was hired to do stuntwork for Denise Nicholas, a rising star in the blaxploitation era, who, like many actors of that era, was also an active voice during the civil rights movement.

"When I came into the business, it was charmed for me," David, now 64, told BuzzFeed News in a recent telephone interview. "You had these tall, black, strong action females, and there was no 5-foot-9-inch African-American women at the time [working as stuntpeople]. There was Pam Grier. There was Theresa Graves, There was Denise Nicholas. There were just a host of women I could double for, and so it was just...charmed."

It took a great deal to get here. This was the first time Hollywood produced films that catered to black audiences featuring strong, take-no-stuff themes. And it was the first time that American theatergoers saw black actors on screen portray something other than train porters, mammies, and shiftless field workers. Still, some critics considered films that came out of the genre to be exploitative, but they sure did make money.

"The genre flourished from 1971 through 1974. In today's dollars, I'd say the pictures — at best — brought in about $300 million," Josiah Howard, author of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide, said. "That would include the take from all the films up to 1980 — the action, horror, Westerns, dramas, comedies, and 'slice of life' pictures. There are about 200 blaxploitation pictures in all."

More than just the revenue aspect, these films gave black actors work. And that meant that people who worked behind the scenes should have seen a lift too. But it wasn't quite that simple.

Whether you loved them or were among those who were highly critical of the genre, blaxploitation films were themselves a small victory in terms of getting material featuring black actors produced in the first place. But the unexpected consequence was the pushback from studios to hire other black people to work behind the scenes.

"I soon realized that it wasn't charmed for everybody," David said, "and so I got involved in promoting job opportunities for people of color with another stuntman by the name of Marvin Walters. And when I got involved with that, that's when I realized that this isn't really that easy. Being a woman and being a person of color: Somebody's either keeping you from working because you're a woman — so they want to put a dress on a guy — or they're darkening somebody's skin, because they want to make a Caucasian person dark. So for every hurdle African-American men or men of color jump to get a job, every hurdle that a Caucasian woman jumped to get a job, women of color jumped two hurdles."

Shockingly, that hurdle-jumping continues to this day.

David, also a former business rep for Hollywood labor union SAG-AFTRA, was taken aback when discovering that her struggles in the industry may have been in vain. Earlier this month, she learned about the aforementioned paint-down incident on Gotham.

The white stuntperson — who remains unnamed — initially secured for the Gotham role was contracted to perform stunts for black guest actor Lesley-Ann Brandt, who earlier this year appeared in a guest role on the VH1 series Single Ladies and is perhaps best known for her role as Naevia on Starz's Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. (Just who Brandt is playing on Gotham is unclear, though she has been posting on Twitter and Instagram about her participation on the show.) BuzzFeed News reached out to Brandt for comment, and emails and phone calls to her representatives were not returned.

Upon discovering this instance of painting down, David blew the whistle, alerting anyone who would listen about what was going on. The response from the studio was swift. Once David was informed about what happened, she said that a chain reaction was set off: She called the Screen Actors Guild and the press, and then Warner Bros. Television was called, and that is what effectively stopped the paint-down from happening on Gotham.

"A mistake was made … in casting a stunt woman for a guest star in a particular scene on the show," Warner Bros. Television said in a statement. "The situation has been rectified, and we regret the error."

While the statement from the studio didn't specifically make use of the phrase, "paint-downs" is entertainment industry terminology that the rest of the world simply calls blackface.

And David — and a host of others — want this outdated practice to finally end.

The paramount problem here is that no one is shocked that something as insidious as this could happen in 2014.

The very idea that this theatrical trick used in what commonly became known as minstrel shows post–Civil War — white actors painted in dark makeup to depict heinous stereotypes of American blacks — happens so casually and without thought is almost as offensive to the minority stunt community as the notion of what we traditionally think of as blackface itself.

"Everything old is new again," actor and civil rights activist Denise Nicholas told BuzzFeed News. "Whoever thought we would be dealing with voter suppression after the civil rights movement? All these years later, we're still dealing with the issues that we dealt with in the '60s. It is absolutely crazy. I'm not surprised. Why did it have to happen? Why couldn't they do their due diligence and find somebody in the first place?"

Nicholas — who also was active in the civil rights movement — said that actors couldn't afford to be silent back then.

"People had a little more consciousness about those kinds of things. My mouth was always open," she said. "I really do think the '60s shoved people into the '70s and then there's a lull where everybody kind of went to sleep for a bit, and people are again waking up and every time we go to sleep it's like we back step. We've gone backwards, so we have to make up for what we missed, what we didn't push for. Hollywood is its own little world. But in a sense it's very connected to the rest of society. People get away with what you let them get away with."

The end of blackface as entertainment came in the thick of the civil rights movement, which ultimately meant that the needle of Hollywood changed. Finally, black actors were cast in roles to portray black people, even if the material still wasn't entirely representative of the black experience. Along with that very public fight — one that saw the end of segregation — was the smaller, private one to ensure that just as black actors were finally netting on-screen roles, body doubles and stunt actors of color were also now employable.

But it wasn't that easy.

Willie Harris sums up what life was like as a black stuntperson back in 1967: non-existent.

Harris and a group of aspiring stuntpeople who all were black would meet every Wednesday at 120th and Broadway in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton, where they would gather in the mornings and work out scenes they'd seen in films. Often, the men would get approached by LAPD officers who assumed they were a militant group preparing themselves for battle.

And in a way, they were. They were readying themselves for what became a small, private civil rights battle that would have them quite literally knocking on studio doors in an effort to just get a shot.

"We were training ourselves to get ready for Hollywood," Harris, now 73, told BuzzFeed News. "We were doing fight scenes out there. We was doing push-ups, high falls. They had a baseball diamond out there that had I think about a 15- to 20-foot wall. We would get up on that and fall off on cardboard boxes. We didn't even have a mattress or anything to stop our fall except cardboard boxes, but we did it, and we finally walked it up to [the studios] and said, 'We are ready.' But they didn't believe us."

As a group, the Black Stuntmen's Association (women are now included among their number too) began preparing for this particular fight back in 1965, when a small lot of them went to the set of a film being shot in Tucson, Arizona, hoping for body-double and stunt work, only to be turned away. They'd had enough, and this group of mostly former athletes looking to transition into a new line of work figured the only way to break this color line was to try to emulate what they saw happening on screen. The group cites Bill Cosby as a big ally; the actor took a stand during his 1960s TV show I Spy, saying he'd had enough when he saw a white stuntperson painting himself in black paint to be used as his body double.

"We went to Universal, Warner Brothers, all of them, to let them know it was time to get in," Harris continued. "Dirty Harry with Clint Eastwood helped. I think Hollywood saw then that we could do stunts. Then guys started getting jobs after that. But … we weren't getting jobs being stunt coordinators … it's like the black quarterback. We weren't supposed to have enough brains to run a team. They would let us do some stunts, but they wouldn't let us become stunt coordinators until later."

The fight lasted for years.

In 1971, stuntperson Marvin Walters led the charge when it was discovered that a white stuntperson was painted down to double for Lou Gossett Jr. on the Warner Bros. film Skin Game. He contacted the U.S. Justice Department, and that move helped to change the opportunities for women and minorities who also worked behind the camera.

On behalf of the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women, he filed lawsuits — which they won — and damages were paid out to stuntpeople of color.

"In 1976, I filed 32 EEO charges against the motion picture industry, and I won five settlement agreements," Walters, now 76, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.

David said that as a result of that lawsuit, damages were paid to all stunt performers of color.

The thought was that moving forward, this would happen no longer. But stunt coordinators are by and large white men, and they hire their friends, most everyone interviewed for this story said. And if the circle isn't diverse, well, then incidents like the recent one on Gotham happen.

SAG-AFTRA, which represents more than 160,000 media professionals, including stunt performers, said its position is that this is in direct violation of the union contract. But it almost never finds out when something like this is going on.

"[With] the process that we go through if we hear about this — and there's a valid allegation that this is going on — it's too late to do anything about it," Adam Moore, the national director of EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) & Diversity for SAG-AFTRA, told BuzzFeed News. "The first thing we'd like to do is get out ahead of it and make sure it doesn't happen. If it has happened and we find out about it, we communicate to the signatory producer that we're aware of an alleged paint-down, and we require that they investigate this allegation."

"They report back to us for findings of that investigation, and if something like that did occur, they need to let us know what they've done to fix the situation or make sure the people who are involved in that particular incident are aware that what they did violates the contract and what steps they're going to take to ensure it doesn't happen in the future."

The problem here is that working in Hollywood is often on a freelance basis, and there's fear for those who dare to speak out. Because of that, the union can't keep an accurate tracking of how frequently this is happening. Often, when it's discovered, it's too late.

And that's "unacceptable," according to Moore. "The different contracts that we have have slightly different language," he said. "In this instance, the one you're referring to with Gotham, that contract … said that paint-downs are presumptively improper. And then it goes into other things about what they're going to do to ensure that doesn't happen. In our commercials agreement, for example, there is slightly stronger language. Where it said presumptively improper [in that particular contract] it said it is prohibited [in the commercials agreement], and again talks about different things they're going to do to make sure that when you have identifiable stunt performers doubling for an identifiable character, and that character is a woman or a person of color or a disability, that they will do everything they can do to hire someone who can appropriately double that person without painting them down or putting them in a wig or those types of things."

Moore said that to do otherwise is a contract violation, and there's a reprimand for such a thing. What becomes problematic is that the union rarely hears about this particular violation.

"People fear for their careers, and if they're the ones to say something about it and someone finds out that they're the ones who told the union — while they're not allowed to retaliate against them — in this business all anybody has to say is, 'Sorry, you're not right for this. Thanks very much.' So people are often fearful about letting anybody know," Moore said. "Obviously, it came up a lot more in the past, which is why you have that contract language, which is why you have some of the stunt associations and some of the things that had happened in the '70s, '80s and '90s. I think for the most part people have gotten the message, that you can't do it. There's a larger talent pool than there has been in the past."

The stunt world is a tiny segment of the Hollywood community, one that often goes ignored unless the worst happens: a fatality on the set, usually during a tricky or dangerous scene. LaFaye Baker, who was the first black woman to get hired as a stunt coordinator of a larger-budget project, HBO's 1999 Halle Berry–led biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, said it's the most egregious form of the Old Boys Network. But if you can get it, it's good work. It comes with a high risk, of course, but the rewards are legendary.

"They didn't want anybody to know about it, because it was like the best-kept secret. We have our own trailer; we fly first class. We get residual income … just a lot of perks," Baker told BuzzFeed News. "However, it's very dangerous. I was working on a music video — I did a motorcycle jump — and when I came up on the motorcycle jump the fourth time, there was a wall of smoke. I couldn't see. So when I tried to rev my bike up, my chin hit the speedometer and I broke both of my jaws at the joint and splintered my mandible in three places. So I have three screws on the left and right side of my face, and I have a titanium plate in my chin."

High risks aside, it can be steady work with a big paycheck. But how to land that work can be as challenging as the stunts themselves. It's a network- and referral-based business, and often it's easier for stunt coordinators to default and hire their friends or people they've worked with for years.

"We have no agency, it's really about who knows you … or if someone likes you," Baker added. "Some of the jobs are difficult, but sometimes I may have a job where I have to step off the curb and fall."

But it's become Baker's mission to let others in on the secret. For starters, she started Diamond in the Raw, an organization that teaches at-risk teen girls about behind-the-scenes careers in Hollywood, including stunt work. Baker, a former probation officer, got into this line of work because she was a gymnast, and her athleticism was identified by someone who watched her train.

She also hosts the Action Icon Awards show — she held the seventh annual ceremony earlier this month in Los Angeles — to honor women who work in this aspect of the entertainment industry. One special award honors male stunt coordinators who make a concerted effort effort to hire women in cases where the stunt person is non-descript.

"We want to encourage the stunt coordinators, the top ones, to think more about women, and hire them in key places so that they can really receive the type of income like the men are receiving," Baker said.

One thing that could help prevent something like paint-downs from happening again is to take a cue from big actors of the era like Cosby, Nicholas, and others, and be vocal about who is hired to work behind the scenes. There even are several documentaries currently being worked on, all shedding light on the experience of black stuntpeople.

"They have a responsibility," documentary filmmaker Lester Griffin said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. Griffin is working on a film, Stunt With Color, which documents the struggles and successes of stuntpeople of color. "People like Marvin Walters and Jadie David fought for not only African-Americans, but minorities in general — Latinos and Asians — to be able to get those jobs. It was a movement. They fought for people in administrative positions back in the '70s when they filed that EEO complaint. The younger generation needs to know their history, because that opened up doors."

And it's important, said actor and civil rights advocate Nicholas, to never give up the fight. Even when the work for civil rights feels finished, it's not.

"I think some people did a lot, and I think other people benefitted from that and then got quiet," Nicholas said. "There's always a front line of people who pay extraordinary dues, and then the next group coming along wallows in the goodness. We get complacent — it's a kind of complacency because we begin to think that everything has been solved, but everything has never been solved. Nothing is ever really done. It's a constant work in progress. You have to stay alert, and you have to keep your dukes up, and you have to keep fighting and struggling. The struggle goes on."

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