EXCLUSIVE: After receiving inquiries from Deadline, Warner Bros. has canceled plans to “paint down” a white stunt woman to double for a black actress on its hit Fox show Gotham. On Monday, dark makeup was applied to the face of a white stunt woman in a hair and makeup test in advance of two days of filming next week in New York. After receiving calls from Deadline, WB initially downplayed the significance of the story, but after looking into it said that it had made a “mistake” and would hire a black stunt woman instead.
“A mistake was made this week in casting a stunt woman for a guest star in a particular scene on the show,” the studio said in a statement. “The situation has been rectified, and we regret the error.”
“Painting down” white stunt performers so that they can pass for black has been going on for decades, even though SAG-AFTRA calls the practice “unacceptable” and “improper.” Blackface went out in the 1930s, but “painting down” white stunt performers goes on to this day, and there is no language in the union’s contract that expressly prohibits it. The union’s contract only requires that stunt coordinators “endeavor” to find stunt performers of the same race and gender as the actors they are doubling. For many black cast and crew members, however, the practice is insulting and demeaning, a holdover from Hollywood’s openly racist past.
A spokesperson for the union said that “thus far, no one working on this production has brought this to our attention so we have no comment on this specific allegation.” But Adam Moore, SAG-AFTRA’s National Director of EEO & Diversity, told Deadline that in general, the union opposes the practice.
“With respect to this issue in general,” Moore said, “the relevant SAG-AFTRA contract is clear: The practice known as ‘painting down’ is presumptively improper … particularly so in a production center like New York City with so many qualified stunt women of color trained for this type of work.”
Technically, stunt coordinators — who also are SAG-AFTRA members — don’t hire stunt performers but only recommend them to the producers. In fact, they really do hire them. The contract’s vague language, however, makes it difficult for the union to bring charges. The contract states, “When the stunt performer doubles for a role which is identifiable as female and/or black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific or Native American, and the race and/or sex of the double is also identifiable, stunt coordinator shall endeavor to cast qualified persons of the same sex and/or race involved…To achieve these objectives, stunt coordinator shall endeavor to identify and recruit qualified minority and female stunt persons…”
Just what constitutes “endeavor,” however, is left intentionally ambiguous.
In 1980, SAG got the industry to agree to add some tepid affirmative action language to its contract covering women and minority stunt performers. In that contract, producers agreed that “women and minorities shall be considered for doubling roles…on a non-discriminatory basis.” Today they have to “endeavor” to hire more women and minority stunt performers.
Moore said that “there is simply no excuse” for painting down stunt performers. “While this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often anymore, still, in 2014 there are apparently people who don’t seem to understand that there are qualified professionals ready to do this work and that, if you are foolish enough to engage in this offensive behavior, you will be called out for it. Performers and audiences alike won’t stand for it – they’ll speak out in ways like this and stand up by spurning the content itself in favor of on-screen experiences that are reflective of our collective stories and values.”
The first public protest of the practice of painting down white stunt performers occurred in 1971 when it was learned a white stuntman had been painted down to double for actor Lou Gossett Jr. on the Warner Bros film Skin Game. Elbert Hudson, president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, protested the practice, sending angry letters to SAG president Charlton Heston and Warner Bros executive Paul Heller.
“When this incident came to light, African American stuntman Marvin Walters contacted the U.S. Justice Department and as a result, a movement began in Hollywood to help ensure fair employment opportunities for women and people of color in front of and behind the camera,” said Jadie David, a retired black stunt woman and former SAG business rep. “There were lawsuits filed and won by Marvin and The Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women, and damages were paid to all stunt performers of color. Finally, it seemed as if the status quo of selective hiring had seen its day.
“Fast-forward to today, and we are again faced with a Caucasian stunt woman who was going to be painted down to double for an African-American actress, ironically again, in a Warner Bros. production. The excuse of the past that there are no qualified African-Americans to hire is gone; there is a huge pool of qualified African-American women to choose from and many were available for work. The studios all have fair employment policies in place, as does SAG-AFTRA. This blatant disrespect of African-American stunt women is beyond the pale. Will the lesson ever be learned?”