Culture June 28, 2021

How Mary J. Blige is working to end 'paint downs' and 'wigging' in the stunt industry

WATCH: Black Hollywood reflects on year of turbulent racial reckoning

As the entertainment industry continues to reconcile its issues with diversity, dozens of Hollywood veterans are rolling up their sleeves and doing the work themselves.

Two-time Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige has turned her attention to one of the most underrepresented groups in Hollywood: Black stuntwomen.

Blige, who said she has done her own stunts in the past, recalled only one Black stunt performer on set while she was filming the television show, "Umbrella Academy." What's more, the singer heard stories of "paint downs," in which white stunt performers wore makeup to pass as characters of color, and "wigging," a practice that involves stuntmen donning wigs to play women.

Blige said she "had to get involved."

"I was like, 'Come on, you can't do us like that," she told "Good Morning America."

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How Blige aims to change the pipeline

Blige, 50, partnered with Gold Bond and the Diamond in the Raw Foundation to launch the Champion Your Skin campaign, an initiative that allows 13 girls of color to learn fundamental skills employed by stunt performers. La Faye Baker, stunt coordinator and performer, and founder of Diamond in the Raw, organizes and facilitates the workshop, and taps instructors from her own network in the industry.

The teens, ages 13 to 15, will be taught hits and flips by performers who risk their lives for some of the most jaw-dropping scenes in television and film.

"I want to fill in the lack of Black females in the stunting industry since they're not as many," Loran Woods, 14, told "Good Morning America." "This is another opportunity for me to get out there and to learn and a way to teach girls who look like me to do stunting."

Devin Stinson
Girls participate in the Diamond in the Raw Foundation Stunt Workshop.

The workshop will reach young girls internationally; stunt double Aaylia Rose, 13, lives in London.

"You don't hear about stunts a lot. I love my community, and my family will be very proud that as a little Black girl, I get this opportunity," Rose said.

Blige, whose "My Life" documentary recently hit Amazon Prime Video, said that it's her responsibility to give back.

"I'm kind of a stunt woman myself, but not like these women," Blige said. "When we [actors] take the fall, it's them taking the fall; they get hurt, so we don't have to get hurt."

Inside the issues plaguing the industry

Several organizations, including the Diamond in the Raw Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk teenage girls, have created databases and initiatives to help Black women and performers of color break into the entertainment industry. Targeting younger women of color who aspire to be stunt performers could benefit the longevity of diversity in the industry, advocates said.

Devin Stinson
Loran Woods, 14, participates in the Diamond in the Raw Foundation Stunt Workshop.

The issues of diversity within the stunt industry have been discussed for some time. In 2020, CW actress Anjelika Washington shared a photo on social media of her stunt double from 2017: a white woman wearing body paint and a wig.

Washington, in the post, described the incident as uncomfortable, explaining that she questioned the "paint-down" decision: "I pulled one of our producers aside and asked, 'Why isn't my stunt double Black like me? Isn't that the point of a double?' She responded, 'Sure. But we couldn't find a Black stunt double in LA. Los Angeles doesn't have many Black stunt performers. But aren't you happy to be working? You should be thankful to be here.'"

Nearly three months later, dozens of stunt performers of color issued a letter to SAG-AFTRA, a major entertainment labor union, calling out studios and production houses for discrimination. Despite SAG-AFTRA representing stunt performers, the organization does not break down demographics by race or sex. SAG-AFTRA also could not confirm whether any progress had been made since the 2020 accusations.

"Our organization has followed a very strict policy permitting self-selection of various identifiers -- and given that many members elected not to self-identify in all categories -- our current data is incomplete. Previous membership census projects are voluntary, and we have seen a reluctance to identify, especially amongst actors and performers who want to be known more for what they can play, rather than what they are," the organization said in a statement to ABC News. "However, current discussions about diversity and inclusion are changing trends. And we feel that our new demographic push will result in much more participation."

"We have undertaken a broad-based and comprehensive effort to better understand SAG-AFTRA's membership demographic breakdown, but that process is not yet complete and will not wrap up for some time. We're presently working on how the data will be shared once completed," the statement concluded.

Blige emphasized the importance of using her celebrity platform to shine a spotlight and provide greater representation for those who look like her. She added that the entertainment industry is in desperate need of a seismic shift.

"We need more women stepping into the forefront to support other women, to bring more Black stunt women into the game, to bring more Black actresses in the game, to get better jobs and better opportunities," Blige said. "To get more diversity in Hollywood, we need them moving forward as well."