On August 14, Joi ‘SJ’ Harris, the stuntwoman for Zazie Beetz’s character Domino in the upcoming Deadpool 2 movie was tragically killed while performing a motorcycle stunt on set. Since then, there has been much speculation as to whether or not her death could have been prevented and whether or lack of experience, lack of safety gear and some have even speculated diversity was to blame. The more I read, the more I realized that the majority of the reporting was very one-sided, leaning towards the “here’s another unqualified diversity hire” direction. So I decided to unpack this a bit in an attempt to separate fact from media spin.
What we do know
Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, Harris was 40 years old and had been riding motorcycles since 2009. She had been racing professionally since 2014 and was the first African-American woman to compete in an American Motorcyclist Association-sanctioned event. She was not a trained stuntwoman but she was obviously a trained professional rider otherwise she couldn’t have gotten the role. Her preferred racing bike was a Kawasaki Ninja 300 but she was riding a Ducati 939 Hyperstrada at the time of the crash. Deadpool 2 was Harris’ first movie role.
Until the WorkSafeBC investigation is complete (the Canadian equivalent of the American OSHA) we won’t have the full story on the complexities of the accident itself. But the organization did release this statement within days of the event, Below is portion of that statement:
“During the first shooting of the scene, the stunt driver continued driving beyond the planned stopping spot on the stairway landing, and continued to drive down a second ramp built over the bottom stairs and across the roadway,” the report says.
“The motorcycle struck the concrete sidewalk curb, the worker was thrown off the motorcycle and propelled through a plate glass window of the building.”
The scene was being shot by either Deadpool 2 Second Unit Director, Darrin Prescott (Baby Driver) or by a member of his team and not by main director David Leitch. The bike was only supposed to be going at a speed of 10-15 mph, which is not a high speed, nor was it supposed to be a difficult maneuver. However, as Harris lost control of the bike it clearly picked up speed and was airborne before the crash according to eyewitnesses. According to Deadline Harris had successfully performed the stunt successfully five times before shooting, but it was on the 1st take, when the cameras were rolling that the accident happened.
The other thing that we know is that Harris was not wearing a helmet. Domino, the character played by Zazie Beetz for whom Joi was performing the stunt, doesn’t wear a helmet and that was the initial reason given for Harris was not wearing one at the time of the crash.
Several outlets have reported that one of the reasons why Harris was hired was because the executive producer demanded that Beetz’ stunt double be an African-American woman. Which is commendable, if it’s true. Hollywood is a very “who you know” business and not many black stunt women get a chance to work on high profile films because of the Hollywood gatekeeping that often occurs. So someone giving a newer stunt person a chance is not a bad thing, as long as she’s qualified to perform the stunt, which is a decision made by the stunt coordinator.
It has also been widely speculated that studios are feeling the pressure because of bad press recently on “painting down” or putting darker makeup on white performers so that they can pass for dark-skinned actors and actresses. There was an infamous situation on the set of Gotham with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character Fish Mooney, where instead of hiring a black female stunt-double like Kelsee Devoreaux to perform one of her stunts, a white stuntwoman was “painted down” to perform it. (read: “blackface”). Devoreaux went public with the incident. Warner Bros was then forced to acknowledge and publicly apologize for the incident.
A Stunt Person’s perspective
To get some perspective, (and dispel a few myths) I had a conversation with several stuntmen in the industry including veteran stuntman Malcolm C. Murray (Amazing Spiderman 2, Unforgettable, Boardwalk Empire, Blue Bloods, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Defenders) about the accident. Although Murray was not on the Deadpool 2 set and did not witness the accident, he was able to provide me with some context on what it’s like working on set as a stunt person as well as what it’s like making a living as a working stunt person of color in Hollywood these days.
When I asked Murray what he thought of some of the headlines going around about “diversity” being responsible for her death, Murray scoffed at the idea. “If the Stunt coordinator felt that she really wasn’t ready, he could have stopped it. It’s his team. Although he has to answer to the Executive Producer, if he really felt she wasn’t ready, he could have stopped it.” The stunt coordinator on Deadpool 2 of record is Wayne Dalglish. However, Dalglish has not been confirmed as the stunt coordinator at the time of the accident or the person who hired Harris. What I can confirm is that the Deadpool 2 stunt coordinator has yet to comment on the tragedy since it occurred. Deadpool 2 stars Ryan Reynolds and Zazie Beetz have at least expressed remorse and regret at the incident.
I’m highlighting this because there have been several reports in the press from unnamed stunt personnel allegedly on the Deadpool 2 set who seemed to feel that Harris was not ready to perform the stunt. One person quoted was Conrad Palmisano , a veteran stunt coordinator who insists that Harris wasn’t qualified to perform the stunt. However, according to Vox Palmisano had nothing to do with Deadpool 2, is not credited as part of the stunt team, and had never met or worked with Harris for the project. He simply had “conversations with the stunt team”.
She was was an athlete, not a trained stuntwoman
“Professional athletes and specialists get Taft-Hartleyed all the time. That’s not new in stunt work. In fact, many times that’s how you get in.” says Murray. The only way to join the acting union is to have been featured in a union production. A Taft-Hartley agreement is a special one-time contract contract that allows someone who is not in the Screen Actors Guild to perform on TV or in a movie and get paid union rates. You can only do it once and at the conclusion of the project, once must pay dues and join to union in order to keep working in Hollywood.
There have been plenty of athletes that have gone on to lucrative stunt and action careers. Many martial artists, competitive divers, car racers and motocross racers crossover into stunt work. Actors/stunt people like Gina Carano, Stanton Barrett, Kristina Baskett all started out in Hollywood as stunt doubles in their perspective fields. And motocross rider Robbie Maddison has made a career out of record-breaking stunts and doubled for James Bond in Skyfall. In fact, veteran award-winning stunt coordinator Pete Antico is a fan of using athletes in stunt work and in an interview with USA Today earlier this year Antico said as much. “Athletes are used to playing in front of tens of thousand of people and being watching by millions.” Antico said in the interview.
Harris was a pioneer in the area of motorbike track racing, being the first African-American woman to become a licensed track racer and compete in AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) racing event. Although Harris did not officially have expert status in the field, according to Kevin Elliott, president of the American Sportbike Racing Association, “if she had requested it based on her 2016 and 2017 finishes, it would have been granted”.
Why wasn’t she wearing a helmet?
Let’s address the fact that Harris wasn’t wearing a helmet. Emerson Wong another stuntman on the Deadpool 2 set who spoke with ET Canada said that Harris was a last minute replacement for another stuntwoman that was unavailable to perform the stunt on the day required due to a scheduling conflict. The other rider also had a custom made helmet outfitted with a wig to approximate the character’s Afro for safety. (It is not known what the race or ethnicity of the other stunt double is). It has been speculated that there wasn’t enough time in the schedule to make another helmet for Joi.
Hollywood movies are expensive to make, so basically, no one was going to wait to get a helmet made, especially for one scene, for a stunt double, for what appeared to be a straightforward stunt.
She wasn’t ready to perform the stunt
Murray agrees with my take and says that she wouldn’t have been hired if the stunt coordinator didn’t think she could handle it. The stunt itself was relatively straightforward, and when she started off, Harris apparently wasn’t going at a high rate of speed. Was it that she wasn’t ready? Or was it that it was her very first take on a Hollywood set that had her make a split second mistake? Why didn’t she bail from the bike when she lost control? “When you hear “lights, camera action” for the first time and you’re in the hot seat? That’s pressure…and every take costs several thousand dollars.” Murray said. “Blocking all that out takes practice” Murray went on to mention the death of veteran stuntman John Bernecker, who died on the set of The Walking Dead in July after a stunt fall from a balcony went wrong. That was a case of an experienced stuntman who’d performed falls higher and more dangerous, who tried to abort the stunt midway and ended up tragically missing the safety padding installed for the fall by inches.
“Like [John’s] fall, It’s possible that this was simply a freak accident.” says Murray.
Hollywood’s stunt community has a diversity problem
Hollywood has a sordid history of “painting down” and”padding” white male stuntmen, in order to portray black and latino characters, instead of hiring POC actors and stuntpeople. Although many feel “painting down” a stunt person to match the look of a POC main actor or actress isn’t a problem…It really is.
Getting hired as a stunt double as an unknown in Hollywood is next to impossible for anyone, much less people of color. According to Murray, The Stunt Coordinator on set is the boss and is a veteran stunt performer themselves (usually), and coordinates stunts and personal with the Key Rigger (a.k.a. Stunt Rigger). They report to the Executive Producer and have to stay within the budget parameters they are given. According to Murray, sometimes the Rigger will pick the stuntmen, sometimes the stunt coordinator does it, but they always collaborate at some point. Although the Executive Producer can press for someone they like, all decisions are ultimately left to the stunt coordinator to make. There is already a pool of stunt personnel that are already in industry databases. But you can’t get on the database unless you’re invited. While the databases are helpful, word-of-mouth still has more weight than anything else. So if there are very few black female stunt women in the database, and the stunt coordinator and key rigger don’t know any personally, they simply won’t be hired.
Could they contact the Black Stuntmen’s Association? Of course. But unless one of the white male executive producers or stunt coordinators in key positions decides to take it upon themselves to vet poc stunt people in their down time and invite more onto “the list” they still won’t be hired. As seen in this blavity article, this is not a new problem and there don’t seem to be any working solutions in play right now.
According to Murray, “Access has always been a problem and the system creates a lack of diversity by design.”
What I think
Why is John Bernecker’s death being called a “freak accident” and no one is blamed, but Joi herself is being blamed for her own death? Race, gender and diversity issues aside, I personally think that Joi ‘SJ’ Harris would be alive today if she was wearing a helmet. Even if they couldn’t custom make one for her, they could have painted it out in post or mocapped a head/wig on later. Is that more money? Yes. So is not hiring her and waiting another day for the original stuntwoman to return. And even if they had to give Beetz a white female stuntwoman, because of Beetz’ light skinned complexion, and mixed heritage there would be no need to “paint down” the stunt woman.
Furthermore, if the stunt coordinator really was being pressured by the executive producers and made the conscious decision to put an inexperienced, unprotected rider on a high profile stunt, then he put his job and politics over the life of a human being and deserves to be blacklisted so that he never puts anyone else at risk. Or were they all so pissed off at the entire situation that they just let Harris perform the stunt unsafely? There is plenty of history of black stunt people having “accidents” happen on set. Including one black stunt performer who was supposed to jump through breakaway glass, which had “accidentally” been replaced with Plexiglass.
He was on fire when the “accident” occurred.
There is as much of a diversity problem below-the-line as there is in starring roles in Hollywood, and part of that problem is not being taken seriously, or given the same rights, responsibilities and in this case safety, as our white male counterparts.