Earlier this month, S.J. Harris, reported by People as calling herself the first African-American woman to compete as a road racer, died tragically on the Vancouver set of Deadpool 2. Harris, working for the first time as a stuntperson, crashed a motorcycle into a concrete curb and was propelled through a glass window while doubling for Zazie Beetz. Since Beetz’s character, Domino, does not wear a helmet, neither did Harris.
According to a new article posted by the Hollywood Reporter, the producers of Deadpool 2 put pressure on stunt coordinators to cast a double that was a gender and race match for Beetz. Although Harris was an experienced rider, she had never before worked in film. She did receive on-set training, but many crew members thought she was not ready to perform the maneuver.
Individuals who spoke with THR said Harris’ skills were getting better, but she still hadn’t achieved the necessary competency to do the stunt. Since the crash occurred at a workplace, an investigation by WorkSafeBC — the local equivalent of OSHA — was opened. Harris apparently drove past an agreed stopping point, a mistake that eventually led to her crash. Before the accident, several members of the stunt team had raised concerns about Harris’ safety.
Darnell Hunt of UCLA, one of the people behind the annual “Hollywood Diversity Report” that examines the representation of minorities in movies, told THR the Harris tragedy speaks to a larger issue in filmmaking.
“If the movie’s producers had to go outside of the normal stunt community to find someone who was both qualified and resembles the actress, that speaks to a problem of lack of diversity of stunt performers.”
As recently as 2014, the FOX show Gotham reportedly dressed a white stuntwoman to double for an African-American actress, as reported by Eurweb. Alex Brown of the Black Stuntman’s Association told Eurweb in a December 2014 article that the incident was deeply offensive.
“It’s really insulting that they would do that in the 21st century. Painting down is a very derogatory term and they know it and we know it, and it’s kind of embarrassing and insulting to start over again with the same issues 40 years later.
“It was insulting and demeaning for the black cast members on the show to see someone painted up like that, and it also made the white crew very uncomfortable. They were not happy about it either.”
Portions of the WorkSafeBC report were published on August 18 by Deadline. The article characterized the stunt as of a low-grade difficulty by professional stunt standards.
Harris’ accident is the second death of a stuntperson this summer. John Bernecker passed away after falling during what the Guardian termed a “routine fight scene” on The Walking Dead.
Even if these two stunts were indeed routine, the Guardian article highlighted the overall increase in difficulty of action sequences in modern movie-making. Andy Armstrong, a stunt coordinator for movies such as Thor and Planet of the Apes, said there’s no guarantee of safety when it comes to stunt performers on movie sets.
“If these stunts were common, you wouldn’t want it in the movie. So you’re invariably asking someone to do something outside the box, which is where it becomes so difficult to regulate.”
Although the production of Deadpool 2 was temporarily halted after Harris’ death, filming soon resumed.
[Featured image by Paul Marotta/Getty Images]