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The late Sidney Poitier was a Hollywood icon who took on film roles that broke racial barriers. But not many people know the part he played in changing another side of the entertainment industry for the better, making it fairer and more equitable for women and people of color still working in it to this day. At the Oscar ceremony this year, there no doubt will be heartfelt tributes to Poitier, and he is most deserving of every bit of that recognition. There’s another important tribute, however, that has yet to be bestowed by the Academy — one with which Poitier likely would have agreed. That is honoring the first Black stuntmen and stuntwomen who helped transform Hollywood, making it more diverse and inclusive.
It was because of Poitier and a handful of other Black actors in lead roles in the 1960s and ’70s that my late grandfather Ernie Robinson had the privilege of becoming one of the first Black stunt coordinators and second-unit directors in Hollywood. Poitier insisted on hiring him as his stunt coordinator for 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night, which Poitier directed. He made it his business during his heyday to open doors and hire qualified Black people and women to perform stunts for that film and beyond, providing them with groundbreaking and career-changing opportunities and other work behind the camera that previously had gone to only white people.
A lot of those stunt actors hailed from the Black Stuntmen’s Association, the professional organization that my grandfather co-founded in 1967. The BSA was the first stunt group in the country to fight for diversity and inclusion for women and minorities in Hollywood, and Poitier answered that call. The BSA led the charge of calling out a practice called “painting down,” which essentially entailed slathering white males in dark paint so they could double as Black actors in films, TV shows and commercials. The BSA also took a stand against “wigging down,” in which stuntmen were hired to dress up in wigs and women’s attire, doubling as women. These practices left well-trained Black stuntpeople like my grandfather and others, including women of color, chronically unemployed.
It would be the BSA’s lawsuit against the major Hollywood studios in the late ’70s that would spark much-needed change. They won, and as a result, SAG included the verbiage “we shall endeavor” to find the correct race and gender of stunt performers, with casting directors now required to make a valiant effort to match the ethnicity and gender of the stunt actor with that of the primary actor. That simple change would be pivotal in the careers of stunt actors who would go on to double for Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Glover, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Regina King and Zoe Saldaña.
The lawsuit did not necessarily put an end to the overt racial discrimination that early BSA members and others endured in the industry, including threats of physical harm, name calling, unnecessarily unsafe conditions on set and, at times, being shut out of jobs altogether. However, we can thank the BSA’s historic litigation for the positive impact still felt in Hollywood today.
The organization has received honors over the years, including an exhibit during the opening season of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in 2016. State legislators in California, Mississippi, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., have recognized the courageous work of BSA members through various citations and commemorations. In 2012, the NAACP presented them with its lifetime achievement award, an honor hand-delivered to them at the awards ceremony by Poitier himself alongside Harry Belafonte. I intend to do my part next year when my documentary Painted Down: Breaking Bones, Breaking Barriers, a history of the first Black stuntmen and women, executive produced by Quincy Jones, is released.
Yet they deserve to be acknowledged publicly and with great fanfare as only the Academy can do during the Oscars. It’s the highest profile honor the Academy could bestow and, like Poitier himself, the few BSA members still living today (co-founder Willie Harris died late last year at age 81) deserve every bit of it. It is time for Hollywood to pay tribute to these heroes and heroines who sacrificed life and limb, and often their dignity and mental health, to pave the way for so many others.
The Academy has heard — and responded to — the many calls for inclusivity in recent years. Formally honoring the BSA would be an important gesture that has the power to kickstart renewed efforts for the change for which BSA members and Poitier so selflessly dedicated their lives.
This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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