South LA stunt pro sparks opportunity for protégés

La Faye Baker practices a car stunt. | Photo by Anna-Cat Brigida

La Faye Baker practices a car stunt. | Anna-Cat Brigida

La Faye Baker rolls up her cargo pants and slides on her kneepads. She pulls back the sleeves of her hoodie to secure her protective gloves. Without hesitation, she jumps on the hood of a silver SUV. She grabs the bar stretching across the roof and dangles her torso over the windshield. Her combat boots rest on the hood of the car as it kicks into gear. The car swerves, gently at first but revving up to 15 mph, as Baker thrashes around on the hood for about three minutes in a parking lot, practicing a stunt. When the car finally comes to a stop, she hops down, unfazed. Her gold eye shadow and shimmery lip-gloss show no signs of wear.

This is a typical day for Baker, one of Hollywood’s only Black stuntwomen for more than 25 years. Before Katniss Everdeen was the girl on fire, Baker was bursting into flames, flawlessly executing car stunts and performing fight scenes for movies such as Clueless and Fat Albert.

La Faye Baker | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

La Faye Baker | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Nothing about Baker is timid. Not her job, her path to success, or her sense of style.

Instead of gaining household recognition through acting, her work is part of the Hollywood illusion. While action packed movies are typically associated with masculinity, Baker has filled the arena with girl power. In an industry where the #oscarssowhite, she breaks the mold.

Growing up in South Central, Baker lived on the peripheries of Hollywood’s entertainment business.

Instead of following the aspirational route of television commercials and movie extra roles, Baker performed in her own ways. At Crenshaw High School, she was a competitive gymnast and played basketball and volleyball. At 16, she landed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for spinning 58 hula-hoops at one time after watching a group of girls hula-hooping in the park sparked a new hobby.

As she studied recreation administration at California State University, Long Beach, gymnastics became her focus but the cinema was always in the back of her mind. She briefly considered studying film, but instead followed her mother’s advice to pursue what she considered a more practical degree.

Baker took a job as a probation officer after college, even though she hadn’t completely shaken off her dream to work in entertainment.

There, a co-worker who worked part time as a stunt person introduced her to the world of dangling off the top of racing SUVs. Baker began attending training sessions. After working out with the group for a few months, she knew she had the style and ability to excel.

“I got flare,” Baker said. “I know that I can do this stuff.”  Baker became hooked on the excitement of driving fast cars and being lit on fire. With connections from her training group and her natural athletic ability, securing work came easily.

Since Baker’s first gig working in Atlanta for The Heat of the Night in 1988, she has worked as a stuntwoman or stunt coordinator in 47 films listed on IMDB. Baker estimates she has worked on more than 120 films total. Her credits include the Nutty Professor, Inspector Gadget and Baker’s personal favorite, What’s Love Got to Do with It, a 1993 film based on Tina Turner’s life and career. Baker has recently shifted her focus from starring in fight scenes to overseeing the process as a stunt coordinator.

Through all this success, she has still maintained her job working as a probation officer at a camp  in L.A. for young men in the juvenile justice system.

But Baker said she doesn’t let Hollywood get to her head. She rarely even watches the films that list her name in the credits. She still remembers hanging out with friends in the South L.A. neighborhood where she grew up and the scant opportunities for her to learn about the entertainment industry. She often drove across town for ice skating, tap dancing or skateboarding lessons.

“Being a minority and doing something that other people wish they could have done, it motivates me to keep moving,” Baker said. “I believe that if anybody else can do it, I can do it too.”

This philosophy propelled Baker into her career, and motivates her to encourage other young women and minorities. In 2005, she founded the nonprofit Diamond in the Raw to empower young women to pursue careers in the entertainment industry.

Diamond in the Raw participants at the annual Action Icon Awards | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Diamond in the Raw participants at the annual Action Icon Awards | Photo courtesy of La Faye Baker

Among other programs, Diamond in the Raw organizes an 8-week summer “boot camp” to expose high school students to non-traditional entertainment industry career paths such as screenwriting, camera work and costume design.

Shammah Tatum expanded her knowledge of the entertainment industry when she participated last year in the program, which costs $150 per person. Tatum, a 19-year-old Compton resident and aspiring actress, learned the ins-and-outs of the entertainment industry by pitching, writing and producing a short film throughout the summer.

“It’s important that young people know that there is way more behinds the scenes work that you can be involved with,” Tatum said, listing editors, producers or stylists as lesser-known positions. “They may find that they have another talent.”

While acting is Tatum’s goal, her experience with Diamond in the Raw gave her a deeper understanding of myriad efforts that create a film. After the camp, she used her new skills interning as a production assistant and then as a casting assistant. Other participants have gone on to work as broadcast news reporters or camera technicians. Tatum credits the program with connecting her with an industry that rarely reaches into Compton, or her previous neighborhoods in Inglewood and Carson.

By working with women like Tatum, Baker aims to bring Hollywood into diverse pockets of greater Los Angeles, pushing more women and minorities to fuel blockbuster success — even from behind the scenes

“There are so many different people with different stories to tell,” Baker said. “Now is the time to open up and be a little more accepting of different viewpoints.”

Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A. Email reporter Anna-Cat Brigida at [email protected] and follow her @AnnaCat_Brigida.

Crenshaw Boulevard traffic detoured this weekend

Construction for the new metro rail line on Crenshaw blvd. (April 2014)

Construction for the new metro rail line on Crenshaw blvd. (April 2014)

Construction on an underground rail station for the Crenshaw light rail line will shut down Crenshaw Boulevard for 12 days, beginning Sunday at 9 p.m. until Mar. 27.

Crenshaw Blvd. will be inaccessible to motorists between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Stocker Street, and from King Boulevard from 43rd Street to Vernon Avenue.

Vehicles can cross Crenshaw Boulevard at King, at Vernon Avenue, Stocker Street and 43rd.

Detours will direct south-bound drivers east on King Boulevard, south on Western Avenue and west on Vernon back to Crenshaw. Northbound commuters will detour along the same route in the opposite direction, according to Metro.

The Crenshaw light rail line will have eight stops, connecting South Los Angeles neighborhoods to a final stop near Los Angeles International Airport. The line is scheduled to be completed by 2019.

Mexicano restaurant opens in South LA

Chefs Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo (from left to right) | Photo courtesy of Mexicano restaurant.

Chefs Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo (from left to right) | Photo courtesy of Mexicano restaurant.

With the opening of their new restaurant, Mexicano, located in Baldwin Hills, chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu hope to immerse customers in Mexican culture, one burst of flavor at a time. The eatery has been in its soft opening since Feb. 27.

Colorful Mexican floor tiles lead patrons to the restaurant’s focal point: the kitchen. There is no partition between the kitchen and the dining room, so diners can observe the preparation of authentic dishes while surrounded by décor from the Mexican state of Jalisco.

“With the kitchen open, you are in contact with customers and they become a part of the preparation experience,” Arvizu said. “We try to get their five senses going. The smell, the sight of the ingredients, the touch and hearing. All of these are incorporated and bring you closer to the meal.”

[Read more…]

Footnotes from South LA schoolday walks

By Randal Henry and Manal Aboelata-Henry

As parents guide their kids to school on foot, the family experiences the joys of living in a walkable neighborhood. They soon launch Crenshaw Walks to encourage others to join.

The Henry family proudly wears Crenshaw Walks t-shirts at the 2014 Taste of Soul. | Randal Henry

The Henry family proudly wears Crenshaw Walks t-shirts at the 2014 Taste of Soul. | Randal Henry

It’s 7:20 AM on a brisk, sunny Monday in South L.A. Brothers Taj and Sadiq check the ‘‘velcro’’ on their hushpuppies and take one last look to make sure lunch pails and homework folders are tucked into their backpacks. Check. Off they go to the nearest Metro Station, about a 12 minute walk. Many people walk in our neighborhood, so most days, Taj and Sadiq say hello to other Crenshaw Manor walkers or talk to their parents along the way.

If the car traffic on Coliseum St. isn’t too heavy and the lights at Crenshaw and Rodeo are just right, they’ll stroll up the platform just in time for the 7:40 train. They might even have an extra moment to find a penny someone’s left behind at the TAP machine. Some days they get stuck waiting for a lull in the steady stream of cars at an unmarked crosswalk at Coliseum or the light at Crenshaw won’t turn until they’ve seen the eastbound train bolt through the intersection. In that case, they wait for the 7:52 train. But, either way, the 7 minute train ride will get them to school well in time for their 8:05 bell.  [Read more…]

Metro to aid South LA businesses choked by construction

South Los Angeles residents walk pass the construction site for the Crenshaw/LAX line on Crenshaw and Exposition Boulevards. A new labor agreement between the union and contractors could lead to more jobs for residents in the coming years. | Jordyn Holman

South Los Angeles residents walk pass the construction site for the Crenshaw/LAX line on Crenshaw and Exposition Boulevards a few months ago. | Jordyn Holman

Construction and expansion are usually good things, but they can come at a steep prices.

For those in the Crenshaw Corridor, a new light rail line coming through their neighborhood may eventually cost them their livelihoods. That’s why Mayor Eric Garcetti and others on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Board of Directors approved a pilot funding program on Thursday that will help small businesses in the area stay afloat during construction of the new line.

Heavy construction on the Crenshaw/LAX line started earlier this year, and businesses say they are losing customers due to the lack of sidewalks, parking and visibility. [Read more…]

Crenshaw alum: Teacher suspension shed light on LAUSD teacher jail

Iris Stevenson arrives at Crenshaw High after being released from "teacher jail." | Amanda Scurlock

Iris Stevenson arrives at Crenshaw High after being released from “teacher jail.” Scroll below for video of Stevenson’s return. | Amanda Scurlock

At Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, the 2014-2015 school year almost began without one of the campus’s most beloved teachers. The Los Angeles Unified School District announced in August that music instructor Iris Stevenson had been restored to her post. However, questions about her several-month-long absence remain. The case has shed light on “teacher jail,” the unofficial nickname for a sort of institutional purgatory for district teachers, which until recently meted out a virtually secret form of punishment.

The LAUSD removed Stevenson from her classroom in December 2013, shortly after she returned from a performing trip with the Crenshaw Elite Choir to Washington, D.C. and Paris. Of the 20 participants, only three were enrolled Crenshaw students. The rest of the group consisted of alumni, chaperones and musicians from around Los Angeles. Upon their return, district authorities reassigned Stevenson, and did not explain why to students and families. She had worked at Crenshaw since 1985.

“Her case, which is a confidential, personnel matter, remains under investigation,” the district said in a statement last month. [Read more…]

The Father of Leimert Park, or the Octopus


Caldwell at a community meeting at Leimert Park | Sinduja Rangarajan

Ben Caldwell stopped in the middle of 43rd Street in Leimert Park, bent down, lunged forward, clicked a photograph and disappeared into the crowded street within seconds.

Something on the other side of the road had caught his attention.

This article was also published on KCET Departuresan online documentary series mapping LA neighborhoods through interactive portraits.

Perhaps it was the colorful quilted skirts swaying in the breeze in a makeshift clothing store, one of the many stands set up during Leimert Park’s monthly art walk. Perhaps it was the kids playing jump rope across the street. Or maybe it was one of the drummers tapping furiously in the drum circle by the fountain.

Caldwell never leaves home without his Canon DSLR camera, whether he’s going to a community meeting, a high-end innovation event at a private school or simply strolling across the familiar Leimert Park streets.

 “He documents everything, knowing things will have more value in the future,” said his daughter, Dara Marama Caldwell-Ross. “The value is not just monetary, it’s symbolic.”

Caldwell captures the world around him from behind the camera, but moves so quickly and quietly that he’s almost invisible. His customary faded black t-shirt and loose jeans don’t help him stand out either. But this low-profile artist is the tour de force of Leimert Park, a constant in this ever-changing community.

“He won’t like it if I say this, but he is like the father of Leimert Park,” said Maria Elena Cruz, an artist and teacher.

He calls himself an “octopus” with every tentacle working on a different assignment. In the last 33 years, he’s been a filmmaker, entrepreneur, ethnographer, documentarian, educator and community activist.  [Read more…]

Despite odds, a boost in heart health for South LA

By Belinda Cai, Diana Crandall, Bentley Curtis, Taylor Haney, Daniel Jimenez, Kevin Mallory, Ken Mashinchi, Jonathan Tolliver and Yingzhi Yang

Zumba class at the Baldwin Hills Mall. | Daniel Jimenez

Zumba class at the Baldwin Hills Mall. | Daniel Jimenez

The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw community is changing shape.

The South L.A. neighborhood has received various grants within the past several years to start programs aimed at reducing its relatively high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity while improving access to nutrition and basic health services.

For many people, these efforts have worked. Take Debra Finley, who signed up for free Zumba classes through the BFit program at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

“I was 195 pounds,” said Finley. “Now I’m 145.”

It is still unclear whether overall health outcomes are improving in the area. Many of these programs are less than a decade old, and are being pushed into neighborhoods that remain swamped with fast food restaurants and liquor stores. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 8 percent of area food retailers in the area are considered healthy.

Yet, many positive trends are emerging. [Read more…]

USC grad student murder leads to four arrests + Frank Gehry design coming to South LA

Commander Andrew Smith and others discuss the four arrests made in the killing of a USC student. | Daina Beth Solomon

Commander Andrew Smith and others discuss the four arrests made in the killing of a USC student. | Daina Beth Solomon

Reuters: The case of a Chinese graduate student at USC who was beaten to death has lead to the arrests of four suspects.

SF Bay View: The Leimert Park Village Book Fair will be coming back for its eighth year.

LA Times: Famed architect Frank Gehry has signed on to design a community center, just half a block north of the Watts Towers.

KCET: Restaurateur Brad Johnson brings his Post and Beam restaurant to Crenshaw.

NPR: Crime writer Rachel Hall sets her new book and protagonist in South L.A.

Future of Crenshaw District’s Marlton Square still looks uncertain

An old mural stands out from the rest of Marlton Square. | Daniel Carr- Crawford

An old mural stands out at Marlton Square. See more photos on Flickr. | Daniel Carr-Crawford

Many driving through the Crenshaw district might head straight for the massive Baldwin Hills Mall — or simply pass through on their way to other parts of Los Angeles.

Few notice the massive, weed-filled lot that is Marlton Square, or know about its long history.

Learn more in an audio story from Annenberg Radio News:

[Read more…]