If you’ve seen The Woman King, you know how badass it was to see all those Black women warriors dominating the big screen. It’s not something we get to see very often, and one of the reasons is that there aren’t a lot of Black women stunt performers in the business. Jénel Stevens, Viola Davis’ stunt double and a fight choreographer on the film, spoke with The Root about creating more opportunities for Black women in the stunt world and passing the torch to the next generation.
Stevens, an experienced martial artist whose credits include Black Panther, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and doubling for Jameela Jamil in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, worked with performers from all backgrounds on The Woman King, as filmmakers had to get creative when putting together the army of Agojie warriors.
“A lot of them were dancers but I think dancers definitely transition well into stunt work. I think movies like this are a platform to widen that base that we are lacking right now,” Stevens said. “Another reason why I’m doing these interviews is to shed light on the fact that this career does exist. And that not only does it exist but you can excel in it, and that there’s not so many [of us] to make movies like this. So we need more Black female stunt performers.”
“After this movie, I know tons of those women were very excited to continue to do stunts. And that happened after Black Panther as well,” she added. “I feel proud and almost a sense of responsibility to get the word out there and to help train these women as much as possible.”
The lack of Black women in the stunt world puts an unfair amount of pressure on those currently working in the industry. They often have to put their own plans on hold to make sure the art they love is still in good standing because Hollywood producers don’t need extra reasons not to cast Black people in their movies.
“I know a lot of veteran stunt performers and Black females that are now wanting to retire, but sometimes they feel like they can’t until they really train out the next generation of performers. There’s a lot that I look up to, that I pull from in terms of knowledge and expertise, and I try to pass it on as well so that they don’t have to say, ‘Oh, there’s not enough Black women, so we have to go another direction.’”
The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and an amazing cast of outstanding Black women, is groundbreaking in how it breaks barriers for women in the action genre.
“It was not lost on us how many women were involved in making this movie, not just in front of the camera, but behind it,” Stevens said. “So many women are involved in the making of this movie and to look around on set to see that was empowering. Then obviously on camera, so many women mean we go into the rehearsal space, and there’s a sea of Black women. It definitely touched my heart to be a part of it. It’s definitely something that we will look to for the future. To see the movie now, the final product, and say we did that, we did it right, and we can continue to do this. So that in and of itself is a sense of pride and I’m humbled and grateful to have been a part of that.”
With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever set to hit theaters Nov. 11, Ironheart coming to Disney+ in 2023, and Wonder Woman 3 on the horizon at some point, there is definitely a world where we can see more Black women taking center stage in stunt-driven action pieces,
The Woman King is currently playing in theaters.