“It’s been about eight months since Black Panther made its blockbuster debut, and stuntwoman Niahlah Hope is no longer bald.”
It’s been about eight months since Black Panther made its blockbuster debut, and Niahlah Hope is no longer bald.
Today, she sports a short fro that she likes to slick back now and again. Sometimes she wears wigs because versatility is in her nature — and actually, it’s a part of her job.
As a stunt double, Hope has rocked Bantu knots while playing Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) in Orange is the New Black. Most recently, she’s worn a brown bob while playing Carrie (Tiffany Haddish) in Night School and will soon be seen flaunting longer Black tresses as Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) in What Men Want.
Hope has always been adaptable and ready for anything.
That’s why when the 24-year-old from Far Rockaway, NY was picked to be in Black Panther — the highest-grossing film of 2018 — she didn’t flinch when hair and makeup grabbed the clippers to shave her head. She was going to be Lupita N’yongo’s stunt double, after all.
“When I got the call, it was so dope,” she told the Shadow League. “The fact that I was going to be a low-key superhero … That’s been a dream of mine forever. I watched Xena a lot growing up.”
In the final battle of “Black Panther”, Hope switches in and out with N’yongo seamlessly — so much so, you wouldn’t even notice. She also was one of the Dora Milaje (Wakanda’s female warriors) on Avengers: “Infinity War” and “Black Panther” reshoots.
But however small Hope’s roles may have seemed, she knows the impact that she and the other nine female soldiers have had on Black women in America. She sees it every day walking the streets of Queens.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a lot more women who are shaving their heads recently,” said she. “I think we started something.”
In a society that still holds long, straight hair as the standard of American beauty, the thought of going bald is scary to a lot of women. But thanks to many changes in pop culture, Black women are starting to embrace more African looks and styles.
“We don’t have that many Black female Marvel characters so it’s just so great to be included,” she said. “People are dressing up their children as the Doras and grown women are doing Cosplay and stuff. It’s been dope to see so many people inspired. [When I was younger] I never knew I could get paid to do something like this.”
If you asked 10-year-old Hope what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d tell you that she was going to be an Olympian. She loved watching ice skating and dreamed of going to the Winter Olympics for ice skating. But gymnastics was in her bones.
She started gymnastics when she was one year old, and in 3rd grade, she was sponsored to train with the renowned Wendy Hilliard Foundation in Harlem. Before black society fell in love with Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Dominique Dawes, there was Wendy Hilliard: She was one of the earliest women to change the face of American gymnastics by becoming the first black female athlete to represent the United States in rhythmic gymnastics.
Hope says that Hillard not only taught her a lot of the tricks and flips she uses today, she was one of her greatest inspirations.
“Knowing that Wendy was the creator of that whole program was just so motivating for me,” she said. “She showed me that it doesn’t matter what you look like, you can still be whoever you want to be. You can still help others. You can still be a champion.”
For a long time, Hope’s goal was to do just that: Become a professional female athlete. But when she discovered the large financial disparities between men’s sports and women’s sports, she was a bit turned off by that dream.
“I knew I wanted to do something my athletic ability,” said Hope. “But I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought about becoming a lawyer or an investment banker”
When she was 17, she enrolled at Amherst College and joined the diving team. She thought her athletic career would be over in four years. But one day during her Freshman year, she was scrolling on Facebook when some posts from her old gymnastic friends caught her attention. They were talking about being a stunt double and booking gigs on different sets. All of a sudden, Hope’s eyes opened wide.
“I just knew that was the move.”
And she didn’t waste any time. She asked her mom for $3,000 to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and tried to get on as many sets as she possibly could. She was never afraid of the risks of being a stunt double.
“I was ready to show everyone what I can do,” she said. “My gymnastics background gives me a lot of confidence. There’s a lot of choreography in gymnastics and it’s about knowing your body and where you are in time and space. Because all of that has been ingrained in me from when I was younger, I know how to ride a wire. I can fall off buildings. I can do anything they need me to do. And I’ve hit the ground so much from being a gymnast that its second nature.”
Hope started booking stunt double jobs on popular TV shows before she even graduated from school. She landed gigs on Law and Order and CBS’s Madame Secretary. She’s been in numerous fight scenes for action series like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.
When she first started out, Hope was constantly in the gym training in all of the martial arts classes she had access to Muay Thai, boxing, kali, weapons, BJJ.
“I treated it like school,” she said. “I would go to the gym at 11 in the morning and wouldn’t come home until 10 o’clock at night.”
She also plays soccer, football, rollerblades and surfs when she can. Hope also goes to the pool to dive on occasion.
“Because you never know,” she said. “I like to just get okay at everything. At least then I know how to move to make it look like I know what I’m doing for film.”
It’s tough work, but Hope says that all of her training really prepared her for the demands of being on set for Black Panther. The Dora warriors had to train eight hours a day for a months before they even got in front of the camera. They had to master the bo staff so that wielding a spear would appear natural on screen.
When Hope’s on the job, sometimes she doesn’t get a lot of time to hang out with the movie stars.
“I was in training while they were filming other stuff,” she said. “I worked out with Lupita and the rest of the crew in the mornings so we weren’t really talking. I got to chill with them at parties and stuff, which was really cool. But there was a lot going on. After you work out all day you just want to go to bed.”
No matter how exhausting it gets, Hope says she’s in love with her job. And while she’s left her dream of becoming an Olympian, she’s finding that her choice is actually paying off.
“We get paid the same as men, which is cool,” she said. “There’s a base rate for all stunt people, and from my side of it, people haven’t been sexist towards me at all and I’m extremely blessed.”
Hope does not want to be “low-key” superhero her whole life, though. She wants to continue to inspire women of color to kick ass, and one day, she hopes to take front stage.
“I want to double the main superhero in their own feature film,” said Hope. “I want to double Tomb Raider. Or I could just be Tomb Raider. I could do it. Just give me lines. It’d be lit.
“I’m trying to get to the Met Gala, you know?”