Black Female Athletes

What it’s like to be a black female stunt performer

Seven women from three generations share their experiences — the good and the bad

In the world of stuntwomen and stuntmen, the audience typically knows little about who is performing. If the job is being executed correctly, viewers may not even realize that their favorite film star was doubled. Makeup, hair preparation and strategic camera techniques disguise these talented daredevils during death-defying, action-packed movies.

Behind the scenes, stunt performers have always faced issues of race and gender inequality. White men and women occupy the foreground while those of color jump through hoops to secure jobs. Keeping their mouths closed about common practices such as blackface, paint downs (a more extensive version of blackface) and wiggings (in which men portray women) protects stunt performers of color from being blackballed. Black women suffer twofold, fighting not to be replaced by painted-down white women or men in wigs acting as women.

Jadie David, the first African-American woman to make a living in Hollywood as a stunt performer, was a key figure in the Black Stuntmen’s Association, which was formed in 1967, and co-founder of the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women in 1973. Members of the group filed complaints against the major studios with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, exposing Hollywood’s discrimination against stunt performers of color.

Over the years, this industry has changed significantly and the number of stuntwomen of color has risen. Unfortunately, issues of race and gender inequality are still prevalent. Stunt coordinators, responsible for hiring talent, continue to resort to old habits such as wiggings and paint downs with excuses such as “It was our only option at the time” or “There just wasn’t anyone experienced enough to complete the job.”

So how does this industry end such inequalities? Women must inform stunt coordinators of the abundant and readily available stuntwomen of color capable of accomplishing the job. Film stars must make sure they are not being doubled by someone of a different race or gender. Halle Berry and Whoopi Goldberg are among some of the most famous to make sure these practices do not occur on their sets. The older generation of stuntwomen must educate the up-and-comers, explaining the history of the industry and showing these young women how far things have moved forward and how to keep doors open for the next generations to come.

Below are seven African-American stunt performers who have risked it all on and off set.

Dartenea Bryant

Dartenea Bryant is one of the most well-rounded stuntwomen in the industry, specializing in just about anything with a motor. She has 90 stunt credits to date and can be seen stunting in such hit movies as Bad Boys, The Hot Chicks, Juwanna Mann, Evan Almighty, and Quarantine. In her spare time, Bryant uses her extensive industry knowledge to train and impart much-needed safety knowledge to up-and-coming stunt performers.

“I didn’t aspire to be a stuntwoman, it was thrown at me. … I was a tomboy. I had a bunch of brothers growing up. I was an adrenaline junkie, naturally.”

Dartenea Bryant received her first motorcycle when she was 11 years old, and her first stunt role was doubling for the singer Aaliyah in the late 1990s. She also trained herself as a stunt driver after attending an apprenticeship to learn how to operate construction machinery. Bryant will double for Gabrielle Union in the upcoming Bad Boys TV show. Of some of the discrimination she has seen in the industry, she says, “Paint downs happen so often now because so many productions have moved down South. You don’t have a Latin grip or Middle Eastern electrician who says something, you have a lily-white crew who don’t have a problem with it. … When I blasted the stunt coordinator of Quentin Tarantino’s movie Death Proof [for wigging], I got blackballed for six months. Now I just go to the media, I no longer put my career on the line.”

April Weeden

April Weeden got her start as a casting director before moving into stunt work. She acted in television commercials as a child and later achieved notoriety in the stunt world because of her extensive knowledge of horseback riding, specifically barrel racing. These specific skills, along with her many other talents, pushed Weeden to the top of the industry, where she achieved work in movies such as Blade, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Minority Report. Weeden also served as a mentor to Dartenea Bryant when she was just starting in the industry. Outside of stunting and fight coordinating, Weeden spends her time pursuing her philanthropy work, building and servicing churches in Trinidad along with managing a group called the Antelope Valley Performers Network.

“There’s not really anything I can’t do. I was a casting director, actress, choreographer, dancer. You’re going to be poor in this business if you do just one thing.”

April Weeden (front row, kneeling in orange top) and Dartenea Bryant (front row, far right in orange top, standing behind Weeden) in a group shot with other stunt performers on the set of Dolemite Is My Name, an upcoming Netflix film about Rudy Ray Moore, the star of the 1975 blaxploitation film Dolemite.

Courtesy of April Weeden

Weeden photographed at Gibson Ranch in Sunland, California, on Aug. 14. Weeden counts Donna Keegan, Jamie Curtis’ stunt double, as a key mentor for her. Her first on-camera appearance was in The Presidio with Sean Connery. Weeden, who has doubled for stars such as Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Yvette Nicole Brown, also serves as a mentor to up-and-coming stunt performers. Of her experiences, Weeden says, “I’ve always been that trailblazer, that one that makes a difference, that one that shifts things, that changes things, the one that could walk up to a stunt coordinator, look them in the eye and say, ‘It’s time to start doing the right thing.’ My effectiveness has been behind the scenes, as opposed to protesting. When something has been the norm for so long, they think that’s the way it should be. It’s taught over generations. Sometimes you’re only familiar with what you’re around. Some people live in a box and don’t understand anything outside of that box.”

Natascha Hopkins

Natascha Hopkins is an all-American collegiate gymnast who graduated from Texas Women’s University. “I’m All-American in vault, but my favorite event was beam because it was the most challenging. Gymnastics is all I knew, and at that time my parents thought I was going to be in the Olympics.” Hopkins’ first stunt job was for a McDonald’s commercial promoting McGriddles, where she doubled an old woman fighting a group of ninjas. This exposure along with her exceptional gymnastics skills made her a perfect candidate for intensive fight scenes and harness work, and she landed roles stunting for Hollywood stars Raven-Symoné, Kerry Washington (who requested Hopkins), Halle Berry and Zoë Kravitz.

“I came to L.A. to pursue acting and then I fell in love with [stunt work]. It’s a type of immediate feedback that makes you feel empowered.”

Not only has Hopkins stunted in blockbuster hits such as Spider-Man 3 and Transformers, and popular TV shows such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Black Lightning, her drama skills allowed her to simultaneously stunt and act in the 2009 film Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Hopkins has partially retired from the stunt industry because harness and wire work were starting to take a toll on her body. Hopkins is now focusing on her business, Capo-Nata, a unique utility patented, lean body sports bra with a built-in waist trimmer.

Sadiqua Bynum

Sadiqua Bynum, 24, is currently the youngest and most successful African-American stuntwoman working in the film industry. She began gymnastics at the age of 2 and started competing at age 8 in vault and floor exercises. In 2011, she walked on to the UCLA gymnastics team and became a three-time All-American. After she graduated, her UCLA gymnastics coach, Randy Lane, suggested she give stunt work a try. She began training for stunts in 2016 at her local gymnasium and soon afterward landed her first major job doubling for actress Angela Bassett on the hit television series American Horror Story. Bynum has obtained major success working on commercials for Audi and Macy’s, the films Rampage and Black Panther, and two upcoming television shows, Watchmen and L.A.’s Finest.

“It makes me mad to know that the older generation of women had to go through [paint downs and wiggings]. It makes me so appreciative and thankful to be working right now; they paved the way for us.”

Sadiqua Bryant performs a harness stunt on the set of Black Panther.

Courtesy of Sadiqua Bryant

Crystal Michelle

Crystal Michelle is a full-time stunt performer whose skills emerged from her love of sports such as dancing, basketball and gymnastics. She is seen here in a makeup trailer in Pasadena, California, on Aug. 16 preparing for Jordan Peele’s new film, Us, where she will be doubling twins.

“I was always in some type of sport. Gymnastics, dancing, basketball, track and field … you name it, I did it.”

Crystal Michelle received a track and field scholarship to Fort Valley State University and later transferred to Northridge University, where she graduated with a degree in sociology. Her first major stunt performance was doubling for Halle Berry in the feature film Gothika, and she later went on to stunt double in two of the highest-grossing action movies of 2018, Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. In 2017, Michelle launched a line of flesh-tone protective pads and full-body pad-suits. Her company, AXTionWear, seeks to provide stunt performers with slim safety pads for all skin tones that can be easily worn under the most complicated wardrobes. She currently has 12 flesh-tone options and plans to release a men’s line soon.

laFaye baker

“If you conceive it, believe it, you can achieve it. And I try to instill that into these young ladies.”

LaFaye Baker has stunted in such movies as Green Lantern, Don’t be a Menace in South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, Clueless, The Nutty Professor and What’s Love Got to Do with It. She is the co-founder of Diamond in the Raw, a nonprofit organization that teaches foster care and at-risk teen girls ages 12-18 the world of production. She’s also the co-creator of the Action Icon Conference/Awards, an awards ceremony honoring the work of stuntwomen and actresses in the movie industry. Baker was the first African-American woman to coordinate a big-budget production film and aspires to become a full-time stunt coordinator.

Jadie David


“We opened some doors, and some amazing talent walked through those doors. We are so proud of those people. There are some exceptional women that walked through those doors.”

Jadie David is one of the stunt industry’s pioneers and whistleblowers; she’s widely considered the first African-American woman to make a living as a stunt performer. She is the co-founder of both the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women and the Diamond in the Raw foundation. She has also worked extensively with and plays a key role in the Black Stuntmen’s Association, which fought extensively to end racial discrimination in the stunt industry. She doubled for Pam Grier in the 1970s in the films Coffy, Friday Foster and Sheba, Baby. She also worked on Sudden Impact, Lethal Weapon 3 and Escape from L.A. Because of severe injuries, including breaking her back twice, David retired as a stunt performer and began working as a Screen Actors Guild safety coordinator for more than five years. David is currently working to produce her first feature film, which depicts the life of an enslaved African-American woman.

Danielle A. Scruggs is a photo editor for The Undefeated. She is a Chicago native and firmly believes no sports team will ever be as great as the Chicago Bulls during their three-peat eras.