ED GORDON, host:
Although he never won an Oscar, Lincoln Perry was America's first black movie star, but for that distinction, Perry paid a price, and that price had everything to do with the character he played. NPR's Roy Hurst examines the bigger-than-life story of the entertainer who called himself Stepin Fetchit.
ROY HURST reporting:
It was 1927 when a young Chitlin Circuit performer named Lincoln Perry arrived in California, bent on breaking into the motion picture business. Hollywood had just begun hiring black entertainers for bit parts and for work as extras. Fox Studios was looking to cast a Negro for the silent film, In Old Kentucky, and Lincoln Perry found himself in line among a slew of other black actors, auditioning for the part.
Mr. MEL WATKINS (Film historian): He saw these people around him and said, okay, how do I make myself stand out in this environment?
HURST: Film historian, Mel Watkins.
Mr. WATKINS: And he simply began doing his shtick--that is, the laziest man in the world. He acted completely befuddled. He acted as if he didn't know where he was, and he immediately got the attention of the producers and the director of the film. He was chosen for the part on that basis. They didn't know what to make of him. They were astounded by him.
HURST: He was signed as a Fox Studio contract player. Lincoln Perry, otherwise known as Stepin Fetchit, would become the very first African American movie star.
(Soundbite from film)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As actor in move clip) Go, see who's at the door, Step.
Mr. LINCOLN PERRY (African American actor): (As Stepin Fetchit) Me, sir? That was (Unintelligible). I didn't know (Unintelligible) and you know we are (Unintelligible).
HURST: But Stepin Fetchit's shtick, at least when viewed through a modern lens, will almost certainly make you cringe.
(Soundbite of movie with Lincoln Perry)
HURST: The character of Stepin Fetchit was almost always a shiftless, dimwitted, mumbling, bumbling fool.
Mr. WATKINS: Like most people now, I only thought of him as a symbol of a negative side of the African American experience.
HURST: Mel Watkins has written a biography of America's first black movie star. It's called Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry.
Mr. WATKINS: And when I started to do some research on him, I found out no, this is an amazingly complex man. He was intelligent, and he was anything but what people take him to be.
Mr. JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (Black American Historian): Well, I, of course, remember him very well.
HURST: John Hope Franklin is perhaps black America's most celebrated historian, and at 91, he is also old enough to be considered a Stepin Fetchit contemporary.
Mr. FRANKLIN: He was perpetuating a stereotype--that is, the lazy, ne'er-do-well, black, irresponsible person. One who, if he thought hard, he would go to sleep, and he had no capacity to cope with the modern world. And so he lived in a kind of make-do world of his own, which was not terribly responsible.
Now, that's the picture that we had of Stepin Fetchit in the '20s, '30s, and that's the picture I continue to have of him.
HURST: By the mid '30s, when Stepin Fetchit was at his peak, people like John Hope Franklin and the NAACP were putting pressure on Hollywood to rid the screen of his image. The esteemed civil rights patriarch, W.E.B. Du Bois, even went so far as to suggest that blacks stop doing comedy altogether. Again, Mel Watkins.
Mr. WATKINS: What he was saying is that, given an American society, we can't afford to present a comic image because it's always going to be misinterpreted.
HURST: In other words, the likes of Stepin Fetchit was keeping mainstream white society from viewing blacks as capable of joining the mainstream.
Mr. JIMMY WALKER (Comedian): I mean, they need to relax, you know. Take an enema, you know. It's a comedy, man.
HURST: That's comedian, Jimmy Walker. He knows something about being called a negative image. His was the breakout character during the '70s sitcom, Good Times. His portrayal of J.J. Evans was criticized as being a return to minstrelsy.
Mr. WALKER: And the way they make it sound is like black people are permanently harmed by Stepin Fetchit, or Jimmy Walker, or whomever it may be. And I don't agree with that. And with Stepin Fetchit, I still don't feel it's a bad character. I think it's a funny character. My philosophy of comedy is someone has to take the pie.
HURST: Jimmy Walker says that for all the black, middle-class complaints about Stepin Fetchit, ordinary poor and working class black Americans understood him. Mel Watkins agrees. He says the character of Stepin Fetchit is actually a subversive trickster. He points out that Stepin Fetchit never really got around to fetching anything.
Mr. PERRY: (Acting in a movie clip) I'm comin'. Yes, I'm comin'. (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Acting in a movie clip) Go on, reach under the bed and get it for me.
Mr. PERRY: (Acting in a movie clip) I don't know if I can reach under there for it or not.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Acting in a movie clip) Why do I have to tell you every morning to reach under the bed for it?
Mr. PERRY: (Acting in a movie clip) (Unintelligible) ...and more power to your elbows, sir.
HURST: Stepin Fetchit generally pretends not to understand what people are saying to him. He goes off on a tangent. They'll ask him one question, and he'll start talking about something else and wandering off, and finally, they either become exasperated or say Oh, I'll do it myself.
And blacks, when he began, understood it perfectly and laughed heartily at it.
Mr. PERRY: (Acting in a movie clip) Tear my tongue off by the roots 'for I'd tell it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Acting in a movie clip) Is my bath ready?
Mr. PERRY: (Acting in a movie clip) Yeah.
(Soundbite of movie with Lincoln Perry)
HURST: Watkins says Stepin Fetchit laughed too, all the way to the bank. By the mid 1930s, America's only black movie star had become a millionaire, and he let everyone know it.
Mr. WATKINS: He was a person who would flaunt that and shove it in your face.
HURST: Perry wore furs and $2,000 suits. He owned a fleet of expensive convertibles, which he would sometimes roll out all at the same time with chauffeurs.
Mr. BLAIR UNDERWOOD (Actor): He was Diddy before Diddy; I mean, this brother was paid.
HURST: That's actor, Blair Underwood. He might be considered among the breed of the more respectable Sidney Poitier types in Hollywood.
Mr. UNDERWOOD: Lincoln Perry's one of my heroes. I'll tell you why--because he was a businessman. Everybody had a certain role to play. We were all soldiers in the war. Lincoln Perry's legacy was one of the battles. I would say he won the battle because he opened the door, and he was able to say that I am a commodity worth a certain amount of money. The next generation had a leverage because of what he did, and we built upon that. Mr. Poitier, after Lincoln Perry, Will, Denzel, Cuba, all of us--we stand on the shoulders of Lincoln Perry.
HURST: But by the late 1930s, Perry's star was dimming. The NAACP was gaining some influence in Hollywood and had effectively demonized him. Meantime, Perry was in a constant battle with Fox Studios.
Mr. WATKINS: His insistent drive was to be considered the same way they considered white actors.
HURST: That meant same billing, same money. He never won that battle. By 1940, he'd walked away from Hollywood for good. A few years later, he was broke and bitter.
On top of that, he'd become persona non grata among the emerging civil rights generation, a symbol of something black America wanted to forget. Lincoln Perry fell into obscurity. Mel Watkins found him at a California nursing home two years before he died in 1978. Watkins says that although he was debilitated by a stroke, he was still determined to defend the character he created and the trail he had blazed.
Mr. WATKINS: In fact, he went back to his room when I was there. He brought out this ream of articles he starting showing me--all these articles and pictures and pointing to things and trying to talk about how great he was and what an impact he had on society at that time. He wasn't defeated. Although he was bitter, he was still fighting to reconstruct that image.
HURST: Roy Hurst, NPR News.
(Soundbite of Lincoln Perry movie clip)
GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News, and the African American Public Radio Consortium.
(Soundbite of music)
GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.