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.