Just days away from the Oscars, Hollywood continues to face down questions over its lack of diversity — particularly among the nominees for its top prize. The controversy has helped prompt a viral hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, and has led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to pledge to diversify in years to come.
For some African-Americans who have been in Hollywood for decades, though, this is a familiar story. Willie Harris and Alex Brown, two black stuntmen who first tried to break into the movie business in the 1960s, quickly realized that studios wouldn’t hire black stuntmen.
“When we were starting, anytime they had a stunt to do with a black actor in them, they would paint these white guys in blackface,” Brown recalls, on a recent visit to StoryCorps with Harris.
“We wanted to prove that black guys can do stunts,” Harris says. “But we couldn’t get anyone to train us.”
So they trained themselves. After their day jobs, they set about perfecting their craft in public parks. On Wednesday nights, they’d practice falling onto donated mattresses and throwing punches while Los Angeles police watched from a parked car nearby.
Brown says LAPD was leery of them.
“They used to think that all these black guys doing jumping jacks and throwing punches out there — they thought we was …”
“We was the Black Panthers,” Harris finishes for Brown. “[They thought] we was militants and all of that.”
Eventually, the police would figure out the two men were harmless, just trying to work their way into the movie business. But it would take Brown and Harris quite a bit longer until they made it.
And even then, they say, the movie set could be a hostile environment for a black stuntman.
“You know, you get on the set, they get to calling you, you know, ‘The Big N’ and, ‘Watch your back,’ ” Brown says. “You was always a little apprehensive about who you were working with, because you’d get some who didn’t buy into the fact that we wasn’t going away. So, you were subject to get hurt.”
Still, Harris and Brown went on to spend decades taking and throwing punches in movies. They became members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association. And though they’re now retired, both at the age of 74, Harris still remembers quite clearly the motivation that drove him to get involved in Hollywood in the first place.
“For me, growing up in Mississippi, amongst the Ku Klux Klan, you had no respect. And I always said, ‘Whatever I get involved in, when I get the hell out of Mississippi, I was gonna be dynamite,’ ” Harris recalls.
And when he returned, he says he returned on his own terms — invited back by a state representative to be honored for his stunt work at the state Capitol.
“You know, my mom has passed on,” Harris says, “but if my mom could just see this, standing here in this podium and speaking to this white audience.”
At a certain point in his speech, he says he happened to glance out the window. What he saw struck him.
“You see all of these oak trees that remind me how many blacks been hung on ’em. We stood in that same spot. And if we hadn’t have been stuntmen, we wouldn’t have been there,” Harris says.
“Ain’t that something?”
Produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar and Zakiya Gibbons.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.