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Black stuntmen and women still fighting

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There has been a lot of criticism and a threatened boycott of this year’s Academy Awards over the shutout of black actors from the list of Oscar nominees. Twitter erupted, with some tweeting the hastag #OscarsStillSoWhite to show their displeasure. 

Some of 2015’s hottest movies – from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Furious 7- have featured diverse casts that are increasingly popular with movie-goers. That’s good for Hollywood’s bottom line.

But what about those who perform the dangerous stunts that make such films possible? The Black Stuntmen’s Association (BSA) has been working to get jobs for African Americans since the 1960s, and now a new documentary will chronicle those efforts, in an upcoming documentary called “Painted Down.”

If you’ve seen the movie “Car Wash”, you already know Henry Kingi’s face. But you’ve seen his work as a stunt double or stunt driver in movies ranging from “The Matrix: Reloaded” to “Captain America: Winter Soldier” to “Furious 7.”

“I just kind of fell into it,” Kingi said. The veteran stuntmen and actor is also one of the founding members of the BSA, when it was formed in 1967. “We would go out and try to get jobs. We had issues with the white stuntmen who wouldn’t talk to us, and thought we were trying to take jobs from them.”

“The industry was very racist at the time,” said Willie Harris. He’s president of the BSA, and has horror stories from the past,  including black stuntmen having to work without the proper safety equipment.

“A lot of us got blackballed and threatening phone calls at home,” Harris said.

There were also paint downs – where white stuntmen were made up to look like the black actors for whom they were standing in.

“It’s still happening now,” said Kym Washington- Longino.  She’s been in the business since 1981, and has been a stunt double for numerous actresses including Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Basset and Taraji P. Henson. She’s talking about a 2014 incident where a white stuntwoman was brought in as a double for Jada Pinkett Smith on the TV show “Gotham.” Warner Bros. issued a statement at the time, apologizing for what it called an “error.”

“It makes me angry!” Washington-Longino said.

Hollywood should take note – Nielsen reports that African Americans spent more than $100 million dollars on the movie industry in 2013. UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood diversity report finds that films with diverse casts had both the highest median global box office receipts – and the highest median return on their investments. 

BSA president Willie Harris say some young black stuntmen and women aren’t fighting for jobs now the way an earlier generation did back in the 1960’s.  “I think they don’t want to rock the boat,” Harris said. But he warns that they must, or risk losing the gains the BSA fought so hard to achieve.

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