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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Friday means StoryCorps. The Oscars will be handed out this weekend, just at a time when the Academy is facing heavy criticism for a lack of diversity. And that is an all-too-familiar story for stuntmen Willie Harris and Alex Brown who tried to get into the movie business in the 1960s. They quickly realized that studios would not be hiring black stuntmen, so in the evenings they would practice on their own, falling onto mattresses and stunt driving in rental cars. Recently, Harris and Brown came to StoryCorps to remember how they finally broke in.
ALEX BROWN: When we were starting, anytime they had a stunt to do with a black actor in it, they would paint these white guys in the blackface, and this was 1968, '69.
WILLIE HARRIS: We wanted to prove that black guys can do stunts, but we couldn't get anyone to train us. We had to train our own self.
BROWN: We had to learn how to fall. You had to learn how to throw punches.
HARRIS: I remember being at this park every Wednesday night, and when we would get out there, the LAPD was already parked watching.
BROWN: Yeah, to see what we going to do. They used to think that all these black guys doing jumping jacks and throwing punches out there - they thought we were...
HARRIS: We was the Black Panthers, we was militants and all of that.
BROWN: And they found out, well, we just trying to get into the motion picture business, and over a period of years, the production managers began to let a few of us work. But, you know, you get on the set, they get to calling you, you know, the big N and watch your back.
HARRIS: When you went to work in the morning, you didn't know if you was coming home in the evening if you was a black stunt-guy.
BROWN: You was always a little apprehensive about who you're working with because, you know, you can get some of them that was still - didn't buy into the fact that we wasn't going away. So you subject to get hurt. What motivated you?
HARRIS: I was already an angry young man when I got to Hollywood. 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 going to be dynamite. The county that I grew up in had a black representative from Mississippi, and he asked me, what you've been doing since you left Mississippi? So I told him that I was doing stunts, and he asked me, would I like to come to Mississippi and be honored at the state Capitol. You know, my mom has passed on, but if my mom could just see this, standing here in this podium and speaking to this white audience. And I look out the window, and you see all of these oak trees that remind me how many blacks been hung on them. We stood in that same spot, and if we hadn't have been stuntmen, we wouldn't have been there.
BROWN: No, we wouldn't.
HARRIS: Ain't that something?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Wow. Retired Hollywood stuntmen Willie Harris and Alex Brown at StoryCorps in Los Angeles. They were original members of the Black Stuntmen's Association, and they spent decades working in Hollywood. That interview is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.