Outside the world of film and TV, few had probably ever heard the term “painting down” until earlier this month, when Warner Bros. Television apologized for wanting to use a white stuntwoman in dark-skinned makeup in its Fox TV show Gotham. The embarrassed production company said it would hire an African-American stuntwoman instead. Yet any way you color it, “painting down” is just another term for “blackface.”
In fact, says TV-industry veteran Nonie Robinson, an executive producer of the in-progress feature documentary Painted Down, the new term may be even more insidious than the old one because it’s a euphemism that tries to sidestep the same thing.
“That’s exactly what they wanted to do,” she says—“they” being the stunt coordinators and producers who do the hiring. “I hate the term ‘blackface,’ and being painted down is exactly what it is: It’s blackface.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s any worse” a term, allows Greg Elam, a producer-director and retired second-generation black stuntman whose sons and grandsons are also in the family business. “But it still carries the same luggage. It’s still an insult.”
Painting down is all the more remarkable in this day and age, when you consider that black stuntmen and stuntwomen have been around for decades—although how many decades remains unclear. Elam—whose countless credits from the 1970s to the 2000s include all three original RoboCop movies as well as films in the Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises—and Robinson both point to Calvin Brown as the first recognized black stuntman. That this historical identification isn’t from 1915 or 1920 but from 1965 only demonstrates how shrouded the field’s history is.
“We don’t know who they are,” Robinson says of the stunt people who undoubtedly existed back in the silent-movie days, when African-American producers like Oscar Micheaux made Westerns and other films for black audiences on the “race circuit” of segregated movie theaters. Complicating matters, Robinson notes, is that “they also used dark-skinned Mexicans for stunt people. In those black Westerns, not all of the cowboys and not all of them doing the stunt work were black.”
The late stuntman Edward Smith once remembered that as an extra in 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, he complained to director Stanley Kramer about a white stuntman being darkened to double for Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Kramer suggested that Smith find him a black stuntman, but Smith was stymied. “Man, I couldn’t get no brothers nowhere,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “But I told him, ‘Next time, I’ll be able to supply you with what you want.’”
Two years after Kramer’s film, as Bill Cosby recalls in a promotional clip for Painted Down (directed by Marques Miles and expected to be released in 2015), Brown broke the color barrier with I Spy—itself groundbreaking as the first dramatic TV series with a black lead character, Cosby’s undercover agent Alexander Scott, who was part of an equal team with white agent Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp).
Recalling a pickup-truck rollover stunt for I Spy’s first episode, Cosby says in the clip, “The day of the shooting, I showed up for that scene to see it. I had no knowledge that there are no black stuntmen. I went over, and there was this white stuntman in Scotty’s clothing. I looked at him, and the lady is putting black, not a deep brown … [on] this guy. … Then they pulled out this wig [that] looks like they scalped a sheep and dyed it.”
After the stunt was shot, Cosby asked executive producer Sheldon Leonard how much the stuntman was paid. After he was told it was $750, as Cosby remembers it, “I said, ‘Sheldon, you can save your money on makeup because I know some guys who I grew up with in the projects … who will do that just for a free dinner and a ticket to Hollywood for a day and [to] go to Disneyland.’ And he laughed. The next thing I know, Calvin Brown is there.”
Brown led the way for Smith, Willie Harris, Alex Brown, Henry Kingi and others to form the Black Stuntmen’s Association in 1967. Despite the frankly sexist name, the roster also includes stuntwomen, ranging from such pioneers as Evelyn Cuffee—whom the BSA considers the first African-American stuntwoman—and Jadie David—who was stunt-doubling for Denise Nicholas in horseback, swimming and diving scenes on ABC’s Room 222 in the early 1970s—to such latter-day performers as Kym Washington, daughter of stuntman Richard A. Washington, who doubled for Richard Roundtree on a motorcycle in Earthquake and Louis Gossett Jr. underwater in The Deep.
Another black stuntwoman is Kelsee King-Devoreaux, whose credits include stunt-doubling for Gotham’s Jada Pinkett Smith in the star’s 2009-2011 series Hawthorne and in the 2003 video game Enter the Matrix. For the record, Warner Bros. Television says that the painted-down double in Gotham was not for Smith—who, a representative told RadarOnline.com, has never used a stunt double on the series—but for an unnamed “guest star in a particular scene on the show.” It added, “The situation has been rectified, and we regret the error.” Ironically, the first major public protest over painting down, in 1971, also involved Warner Bros., which had used a white stuntman for Gossett in the film Skin Game.
Robinson, whose grandfather Ernie Robinson was himself a pioneering stuntman, says she’s more disappointed than angry at modern film- and TV-industry people, living in presumably more enlightened times, who don’t understand the slap in the face behind slapping on blackface.
“I think people in our generation are accustomed to doing things we think might be popular or cool without even thinking twice about what it might represent,” she laments. “They say, ‘I didn’t know it was offensive.’ Another perspective is: We shouldn’t have to tell you it’s offensive. You should just know. If you know better,” she says, “you do better.”
Frank Lovece is journalist for Newsday and other publications and the author of books including Lost and Found, with photographer Matthew Jordan Smith.