'Gotham' Resurfaces Hollywood's Tricky History Of 'Painting Down' : Code Switch Gotham has been one of the fall's most successful television debuts. But earlier this month the show found itself in hot water when it hired a white stuntwoman as a body double for a black guest star.
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'Gotham' Resurfaces Hollywood's Tricky History Of 'Painting Down'

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'Gotham' Resurfaces Hollywood's Tricky History Of 'Painting Down'

'Gotham' Resurfaces Hollywood's Tricky History Of 'Painting Down'

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The new show "Gotham" has been a hit - lots of love from the critics and audiences this fall. But earlier this month, the show found itself in hot water when the show hired a white stunt woman as a body-double for a black guest star. How does that work, you might ask?

DAVID ROBB: They took the white stuntwoman and put her through hair and makeup and they applied the black makeup on her, so that she could pass as the black guest star.

RATH: David Robb is a reporter for Deadline Hollywood. He's been covering labor issues in Hollywood for more than 20 years. He says there's a name for this practice - no, not blackface. It's called painting down.

If you're surprised that still happens in 2014, Robb says that stunt work is still kind of an old boys' club.

ROBB: And they hire the people that they know. They know a good stunt person so they'll recommend that person. And this case, the coordinator couldn't find, or didn't know, enough black stunt performers, so he decided to get a white stuntwoman to do the job.

RATH: The white stunt woman never made it on camera, he says, but the hair and makeup test was plenty bad enough.

ROBB: It's insulting and demeaning to the black performers on the show and cast members to see, you know, somebody being painted down like this. But it also makes the white cast and crew very uncomfortable. They were not happy about it either.

JADIE DAVID: When that decision was made, I got a phone call because my mouth is big and people often know I will open it at every chance I get.

RATH: That's Jadie David. She's a retired stuntwoman and has worked for the Screen Actors Guild to end practices like painting down. She's also African-American. And when she got wind of what was happening on the "Gotham" set, she blew the whistle to SAG.

DAVID: First and foremost, it's offensive. It really shouldn't happen. Painting somebody down, what it actually does is it takes work from someone else. You just took a job away from an African-American actress.

RATH: David got her start back in the 1970s, where she found a niche doing stunts for stars like Pam Grier in blaxploitation films like "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown." She told me she never lost any work to painted-down doubles, but it was a problem for others in the business.

DAVID: It was common enough for us to have made it an issue. That it wasn't something you could just like OK, it was just one time. But it was enough to say no, no, no. This has got to stop.

RATH: She and David Robb both point to a watershed moment in 1965. Bill Cosby had been cast in the show "I spy" - the first ever black co-star on an American drama show. Cosby played a secret agent. So it wasn't long before he needed a stunt double. In an upcoming documentary called "Painted Down," Cosby remembers his discomfort watching his white stunt double getting painted black.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PAINTED DOWN")

BILL COSBY: Not a deep brown - she's putting black.

RATH: Cosby was shocked to find out producer Sheldon Leonard had paid the body double $750 for the work - $5,600 in today's money.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PAINTED DOWN")

COSBY: And I said Sheldon, you can save your money on makeup, because I know some guys I grew up with in the projects who will do that just for a free dinner and a ticket to Hollywood for a day, and go to Disneyland.

RATH: Cosby's push helped open the door for non-white stunt performers like Jadie David. She says the efforts performers have made over the years made a huge difference.

DAVID: It's almost extinct. Really, I would say that. It does happen, but considered to what was happening back in the day, it's almost extinct.

RATH: And in "Gotham," justice prevailed. David Robb of Deadline says Warner Brothers, the company behind the show, promptly issued a mea culpa.

ROBB: A mistake was made this week in casting a stuntwoman for a guest star on a particular scene on the show. The situation has been rectified and we regret the error. They were very good about it.

RATH: The episode in question will likely air next month.

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