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Is it ever okay to wear blackface?

Is it ever okay to be painted as a person of different ethnicity? Vanita Prasad looks at the politics of New Zealand’s stunt industry and its diversity challenges.

Getting ‘painted down’, wearing blackface, changing skin tones to match other characters.

Depending on who you talk to these are a few of the ways people describe the practice of painting stunt people on set to match actors' skin colours, a routine that recently saw two extras walk off the Auckland set of Power Rangers in protest.

Lily Holloway, an extra contracted to the Power Rangers Production Limited on December 5 says she was upset to see Caucasian and Japanese stunt people in “blackface” on set.

“Initially I thought that this man was a burn victim or something but I found out from one of the people in charge, that he had been dressed up so that he could stunt double as one of the main characters.”

“It looked like his entire body had been literally spray painted, the inside of his ears, his ankles and he was in an afro wig as well.”

The issue of blackface has been a hot topic in New Zealand in recent weeks with two organisations, the Hawera Mt View Lions Club and Christchurch Hospital Urology Department both issuing public apologies for, respectively, featuring people in blackface on a Christmas float and displaying photos of staff in blackface.

Holloway, a university student says the production should have found an appropriate stunt double for the extra and there is no excuse for using blackface, a sentiment echoed by fellow extra Tina Torkaneh.

But Power Rangers stunt coordinator Mark Harris and members of the industry say it’s not a black and white issue in the stunt world.

Harris, who hires talent and supervises stunts on the show, says industry constraints and budget limitations and safety make the practice necessary, especially on the set of Power Rangers.

“The way this show operates is so fast with a limited budget, the stunt people are having to double several different people a day - they couldn’t afford to have doubles for that particular person for the whole show - it just couldn’t happen.  

“It works very well on a show like this because it’s so fast, it’s faster than anything else that shoots probably, internationally.”

The international Power Rangers series has been filmed in Auckland for more than a decade and its current cast includes lead characters of several ethnicities including Indian, Asian and African-American.

Harris, who has been in the stunt industry for more than 30 years, says he was surprised by the walkout which was the first he’d ever encountered.

“They obviously weren’t in the know because if they were in the know they would have seen this many, many, many times - like on a daily basis.

“The actors and the people we deal with have no issue with it. It’s what ends up on screen which is very important and it’s safe and it’s fast. If we had the luxury to have the right person - that would be wonderful.”

Slow progress

Stunt Guild of New Zealand president Augie Davis says while the internet gives stunt coordinators access to an international database of doubles, casting often comes down to money.

“There’s a person out there available but this is what it’s going to cost. It really comes down to that. I’ve never experienced anything malicious going round with white people being put ahead of black people.”

Davis, who became president of the guild this year, says there is a lag in the industry as stunt crews try and keep up with increasingly progressive casting across the entertainment industry.

“Right now the market’s changing, people are making productions with more diverse characters in mind, a huge influx of Asian representation, a greater representation of women.

“Now for our industry, that’s a big ship to manoeuvre because you don’t become a stunt person overnight.

“Unlike an actress, they do a walk-on part...but to fall down those stairs, or drive a motorbike or car and crash  -it is something that requires years of experience and training on the job.

Davis says while the demand for diverse actors is increasing, it is still difficult for stunt people to sustain a stunt career and develop their skill set in an industry that is casual, without getting painted.

“It’s a double-edged sword. We need the productions to come to find opportunities for those of colour and women to come into the industry and actually work.

“The only way to get experience, the best experience, is to get in front of the camera and crew and work along with people who will mentor you and who will create the action sequences to enable you to do your best.”

Davis says he has doubled Caucasian actors in his career due to his skill set matching the needs of the productions he was hired by.

“I’m Fijian and I’ve never doubled a single Fijian in my life. I’ve doubled everybody else under the sun but not a Fijian. But my career is not struggling because it.

‘The pressure is real’

One of the central components to the controversy of being “painted down”, a term used in the stunt industry, is the concern that minorities are being kept from jobs by white men who have historically dominated the stunt industry.

In the United States in the mid-1970s, its Equal Employment Opportunities Commission filed a number of successful lawsuits against the studios for discrimination against stunt people and extras along racial lines. 

More recently, a lawsuit has been filed by Deven MacNair, a Los Angeles-based stunt performer who is looking to mount what is believed to be the first legal challenge to wigging, according to a report in The Guardian.

“Wigging” is the industry term given to the practice of stuntmen wearing wigs to play female roles.

MacNair, is planning to sue a production company and Hollywood’s acting union over a male colleague performing a stunt in drag instead of giving the job to a stuntwoman says The Guardian.

Dayna Grant, a New Zealand stunt coordinator who doubled for Charlize Theron in Mad Max and is working on the Wonder Woman set has been a forerunner for stuntwomen in New Zealand.

Grant said historically stuntwomen were not given fire or burn stunt roles because they were deemed too dangerous for women, stunts that she now specialises in.  

She said women in the industry had to fight to prove that they had the skills to play the roles as well as their male counterparts.

Grant who runs New Zealand Stunt School between working on shoots, says empowering and upskilling women in the stunt industry was part of the motivation for starting the school, which is a go-to talent pool for stunt coordinators.

She says there is real demand for ethnically diverse stunt people and she encourages them to make the most of the demand as well as picking up complementary skills like rigging and fire supervision to ensure they have enough work.

Davis says while its a tricky issue to navigate he welcomes the spotlight on diversity in the industry.

“Is the pressure real? Absolutely. The pressure is there for stunt coordinators like myself to hire people based on their colouring, but it’s not a negative pressure. It’s the pressure to get the best result for screen.”

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