Legs, three times. Shoulder. Head. Teeth. Nose. These are the parts stuntwoman-turned-stunt coordinator Melissa Stubbs recalled she had broken throughout her career. Of course, in a documentary titled Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, based on the book of the same name from Mollie Gregory, this is far from the last knot-inducing anecdote from people like, or once like, Stubbs that you’ll get to hear. And you’ll need to. Through her interviewees, director April Wright has proven that stuntwomen are the magicians of the movies and are on-cue in demanding from folks of filmdom—from execs to audiences—their overdue appreciation.
The two notions are explosive and tangible enough in Stuntwomen that not even the unfortunately negligible presence of executive producer Michelle Rodriguez and the stilted narration Nell Scovell has written for her can dent the experience. Jonathan Shaw’s editing almost does, however, conveying little-to-no awareness of structure and resulting in a hiccupy flow, but only “almost.” The production’s lacking areas could never gain a residency longer than five minutes in your mind because its content—both the information presented and the presenter of said information—is downright winning. Or eye-opening.
For example, women stunt performers have been around since the silent era, but their names and accomplishments by extension are silenced as the men begin their takeover. It may show up as “wigging,” having a stuntman donning a wig, or as giving well-qualified stuntwomen not the “money shots” but instead “nondescript” works, like mid-sprint falls and car swerves and other cutting-floor variants. More disturbing stuff? Not being provided with safety equipment to meet beauty standards (which are also imposed upon the actual actresses), encountering (stunt) mansplainers when tackling vehicular works (come on, dudes, Debbie Evans doubled Trinity for the iconic Matrix Reloaded freeway chase), or flirting with the film industry’s blacklist after explaining how the director’s vision might be ignoring safety considerations. The stunt world is a man’s world, one that stuntwoman Jeannie Epper, an outright bundle of joy in this documentary, sums it up best (citing it as fatherly advice): “At that time if you’ve said anything, you’re a bitch — best not to be one.”
In most documentaries, the call to action is reserved after all the talking and sightseeing are finished. It’s the other way around for Stuntwomen. The point is made just a few steps from the gate, which is then amplified by the featured places and faces. This is both a reflection of director Wright’s confident vision and the longevity of the problem (that, in a perfect world, will be terminated after this documentary’s release). It wasn’t out of fun but of necessity that the United Stuntwomen’s Association and the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women were created. Jadie David didn’t amass her experience doubling Pam Grier and more to be replaced when it was time to film the “money shot.” All these women know the scenarios, even the fatal worst one, so why brush off their concerns when they raise them? One wishes more time was devoted to minority stuntwomen, though featuring them alone is appreciated (a standout is Li Jing). The occupation is already filled with hazards, as the stories of Sonja Davis or Cheryl Wheeler-Dixon will prove, so there’s no need to introduce two more in the forms of condescension and dehumanization. But it was business as usual when Bumblebee made headlines as, have mercy, its stunt team created the unholy union of wigging and nondescript stunts. Come on…
But this is when the documentary’s subtitle steps in. The untold story of stuntwomen is now a told one. After meeting and listening to the women here, you’ll realize that every one of them has been working toward their “Donna Keegan moment”—to perform something as grand and exhilarating as the limousine-to-helicopter stunt in True Lies. Or to be the next Jeannie “Wonder Woman” Epper, Jadie David, Zoë Bell, or whomever their idol is. One can only love to see it becoming true for them.
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story is available on digital platforms.