Outside the world of film and TV, few had probably ever heard the term “painting down” until earlier this month, when Warner Bros. Television apologized for wanting to use a white stuntwoman in dark-skinned makeup in its Fox TV show Gotham. The embarrassed production company said it would hire an African-American stuntwoman instead. Yet any way you color it, “painting down” is just another term for “blackface.”
In fact, says TV-industry veteran Nonie Robinson, an executive producer of the in-progress feature documentary Painted Down, the new term may be even more insidious than the old one because it’s a euphemism that tries to sidestep the same thing.
“That’s exactly what they wanted to do,” she says—“they” being the stunt coordinators and producers who do the hiring. “I hate the term ‘blackface,’ and being painted down is exactly what it is: It’s blackface.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s any worse” a term, allows Greg Elam, a producer-director and retired second-generation black stuntman whose sons and grandsons are also in the family business. “But it still carries the same luggage. It’s still an insult.”
Painting down is all the more remarkable in this day and age, when you consider that black stuntmen and stuntwomen have been around for decades—although how many decades remains unclear. Elam—whose countless credits from the 1970s to the 2000s include all three originalRoboCop movies as well as films in the Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises—and Robinson both point to Calvin Brown as the first recognized black stuntman. That this historical identification isn’t from 1915 or 1920 but from 1965 only demonstrates how shrouded the field’s history is.