A new report about the motorcycle crash that resulted in the death of professional motorcycle racer Joi “S.J.” Harris on the set of Deadpool 2 alleges that concerns about Harris’s ability to safely film the scene were ignored by producers due to a desire to have a black woman perform the stunt.
An investigation by the Hollywood Reporter claims stunt professionals on the set expressed numerous concerns about Harris, a professional motorcycle racer who was still learning stunt work, had never worked on a film set before, and had reportedly crashed her motorcycle repeatedly just days before filming the stunt that led to her death.
Much of THR’s reporting is attributed to an anonymous production source who claims to have walked off the set due to increasing concerns with the decision to use Harris for the stunt. The source, a stunt performer who’d been training Harris, told THR that multiple members of the stunt crew had concerns about Harris’s inexperience as a stunt performer, and that at least one of them took their concerns to producers, only to be ignored. THR’s report also cites veteran stunt performer Conrad Palmisano, who is not filming Deadpool 2 and was not on set that day but claims to have spoken to several stunt crew members who echoed the anonymous performer’s allegations. “The stunt coordinators caved to the pressure. All the stunt people could do was take it to their higher-ups,” he told THR.
According to THR, the stunt in question was a straightforward one involving ramping a bike down a few steps. It would have been an easy stunt for an experienced performer, but while Harris had been “improving,” according to THR’s source, there was still concern among the crew that she could hurt herself or others if she performed the stunt. Additionally, Harris wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time of the crash, because her character wasn’t. According to on-the-scene reports from Global News and an investigation from the Canadian safety agency WorkSafeBC, Harris successfully completed the stunt four times in a row, but lost control of the bike on the fifth turn — which was also the first shooting take — went airborne, and flew into the glass windows of Shaw Tower in Vancouver.
THR’s report suggests that producers’ decision to ignore the stunt performers’ concerns and put Harris into stunt shoots while she was still training was the result of a desire for a black stuntwoman who would work well as a stand-in for actress Zazie Beetz, who plays Domino.
There are so few black stunt performers and other stunt performers of color that white stunt performers routinely don blackface in order to portray black actors while shooting stunt scenes. The practice is called “painting down,” and the subterfuge extends not only to race and ethnicity but also to gender:
Pop Quiz! Which one is Penelope Cruz and which one is her stunt double? Take your time and look closely! pic.twitter.com/0bo5Wx9Lsp— Matt Singer (@mattsinger) June 26, 2015
The Deadpool 2 producers’ apparent wish to avoid “painted down” stunt performers is laudable in theory, but in practice, the decision to use Harris for a stunt she reportedly wasn’t ready to perform only further underlines the lack of diversity among trained stunt performers.
The Screen Actors Guild’s guidelines for stunt coordinators strongly encourage productions to both hire diversely and make the industry welcoming for diverse stunt performers, but it also specifies that hires should be “qualified.”
The question of what constitutes a “qualified” stunt performer is complicated in this case by the fact that it’s increasingly common for athletes like Harris to transition their careers into stunt work. Harris’s position as the first black woman in the US to do competitive motorcycle road racing might have qualified her to perform a motorcycle stunt, but the accounts of her on-set training in the THR report suggest a fatal experience gap between her racing background and her first stunt performance.
Harris’s death is the second on-set stunt performer death in the span of a month, following the July death of stuntman John Bernecker on the set of The Walking Dead.