For the past few years when Oscar nominees have been announced, there has been outrage both online and in the press. In 2016, all 20 individuals nominated in the acting categories were white. The outcry was so great that the governing board for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to add new members in order to increase diversity in the coming years.
For some African American people who have spent decades around the film industry, this continues to spotlight an age-old problem.
Willie Harris (pictured below) and Alex Brown (pictured above) came to Hollywood in the 1960s dreaming of breaking into the movies as stuntmen. Both were athletic and strong, but despite their qualifications, stunt coordinators repeatedly turned them away.
Realizing that movie studios had little interest in hiring black stuntmen—many wouldn’t even open stages and gyms for them to practice in—they continued to hone their skills training and practicing in public parks around Los Angeles. They would leap from bleachers onto donated mattresses and practice elaborate driving maneuvers using rented cars.
Eventually, Willie and Alex were able to break into the industry. They became original members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association, spending decades in Hollywood taking and throwing punches in films like The Color Purple and the James Bond classic Live and Let Die.
Willie and Alex came to StoryCorps to remember how they broke into the movies.
Originally aired February 26, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.