Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's First Black Film Star
Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's First Black Film Star
Although he never won an Oscar, Lincoln Perry was America's first black movie star. But for that distinction, Perry paid a heavy price -- he is best known as the character of Stepin Fetchit, a befuddled, mumbling, shiftless fool.
Seen through a modern lens, Perry's "laziest man in the world" character can be painfully racist. Perry, a veteran of the vaudeville "Chitlin Circuit," got his break in Hollywood in 1927 when he was cast in the silent film In Old Kentucky. According to film historian Mel Watkins, Perry created the character to make himself stand out from other actors vying for the role.
"He acted as though he didn't know where he was, and he immediately got the attention of the producers and the director of the film," says Watkins, author of the biography Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. "He was chosen for the part on that basis -- they didn't know what to think of him. They were astounded by him."
Watkins says that like most Americans, he thought of Stepin Fetchit as a symbol of the negative side of the African-American experience. But in his research, he discovered Perry to be very different from his Fetchit character. "This is an amazingly complex man. Intelligent -- and he was anything but what people take him to be."
By the mid-1930s, Perry was at his peak -- and black leaders were putting pressure on Hollywood to rid the screen of the stereotype he was responsible for creating. They believed the Stepin Fetchit character was keeping white America from viewing blacks as capable of joining the mainstream.
Comedian Jimmy Walker knows something about being accused of perpetuating a negative stereotype. His portrayal of J.J. Evans in the sitcom Good Times was criticized as a return of the minstrel show.
"The way they make it sound, it's like black people are permanently harmed by Stepin Fetchit," Walker says. "And I don't agree with that -- I don't think it's a bad character. I think it's a funny character." Walker points out that the Fetchit character is actually a subversive trickster -- he never got around to fetching anything.
"The lazy man character that [Perry] played was based on something that had come from slavery," Watkins says. "It was called 'putting on old massa' -- break the tools, break the hoe, do anything to postpone the work that was to be done."
Finally, the white characters would become exasperated and do the work themselves. "And blacks understood it perfectly, and laughed heartily at it," Watkins says. For his part, Perry was laughing all the way to the bank. By the mid-1930s, he was a millionaire with a fleet of luxury cars and expensive suits.
But by the end of the 1930s, Perry's star began to wane. The NAACP was gaining some influence in Hollywood and Perry was in a constant battle with Fox Studios to get equal pay and billing as his white co-stars -- a battle he never won. By 1940, he walked away from Hollywood, and within just a few years he was broke. To the emerging civil rights movement, Perry was a symbol of something black America wanted to forget, and he faded into obscurity.
Watkins found Perry in 1976 in a nursing home, recovering from a stroke. "He wasn't defeated," Watkins says. "Although he was bitter, he was still fighting to reconstruct that image."
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Excerpt from 'Stepin Fetchit'
CHICAGO: NOVEMBER 1976
The frail, dark-skinned old man arose late to the swoosh and thud of wind kicking at his shuddered bedroom window on this raw, steel-gray day. Outside the modest two-story brick residence, which was set in a row of single-family homes on the city's South Side, gusts swept most anything not tied or nailed down out into the street and sent it rolling along the cobblestone pavement. On mornings such as this, there was no doubt as to why Second City citizens referred to the piercing, bone-numbing gales as simply "the hawk."
It was after ten when the old man unraveled the covers, shivered at the draft that whipped between window and sill, and wearily pulled himself up into a sitting position. Head tilted slightly forward, he blinked and dug the ridges of his knuckles and forefingers into his eye sockets. Then, as if drifting back to the twenties and a Hollywood movie set, he ran his hand ever so slowly along the near-bald ebony crest of his head.
As he stirred from heavy sleep, his face momentarily settled into a heavy-lidded, near-bemused expression. That quixotic look had once been as familiar to Americans as Babe Ruth's minced-step home-run trot or little Shirley Temple's cherubic smile. Some forty years earlier, when fans had flocked to his films by the millions, it would have elicited knee-slapping howls, wry grins or, at the very least, tight-lipped simpers of amused acceptance from nearly everyone. During the seventies, however, in an America radically transformed by the civil rights movement and the new black militancy, it was most frequently greeted by a wary flash of recognition, an exasperated frown or, even more often, abusive condemnation.
The familiar gesture and sleepy-eyed expression had become symbols, emblems of an attitude, an impotent posture, and a history of sidestepping, accommodation, and groveling that African Americans desperately sought to erase—not only from public view but also from their own memory. The old man, unfortunately, was a living reminder of that spurned history. And that fact, the near-universal disdain with which he was now viewed, rarely strayed far from the mind of this once-revered relic.
This morning, however, public infamy was an unobtrusive spook. The old man was much more attentive to the gnawing pain that for the last four or five years had accompanied his daily awakening. The spasms that pinched his spine and radiated down into his thighs and spindly, slightly bowed legs silenced most other concerns. Nearly as aggravating was the faint headache that pulsed beneath his gleaming pate. The annoying throbbing ringed his brow as if someone were periodically constricting then loosening a silk sash—the expensive type that not too long ago hung with the dozens of silk robes (not to mention thousand-dollar custom-made cashmere and silk suits, mohair overcoats, and exotic haberdashery) that had lined the closets of his palatial homes.
Deliberately, he pushed his legs over the side of the bed, then slowly stood and padded across the floor with a stoop-shouldered, halting gait befitting a former star who had built his reputation on the improbable billing of "The World's Laziest Man."
The small second-floor bedroom was piled high with old newspapers and boxes filled with mementos—posters, playbills, photos, and reams of faded, yellowed magazine clippings that he had meticulously collected and hoarded over the past fifty years. Pulling on an oversized terry-cloth robe, he padded toward the hallway. Neither his wife, Bernice, nor his hosts, the old show-business friends who owned the house, were about; today he had the tiny bathroom to himself. Later, he made his way down the steps and, after preparing a cup of instant coffee, slouched down into a chair at a wobbly kitchen table.
By late afternoon, Bernice had returned. The old man had retreated to their bedroom. It was his customary routine when he was not out lobbying to have someone publish the autobiography that he still dreamed of writing or producing a television documentary of his life. On rare occasions, he even ventured out onto the road for an engagement at some small-town lodge, social club, or strip joint where curious, predominantly wizened fans still flocked to see him. In those venues he was still a viable attraction. At those appearances, the audiences were often exclusively white, as black Americans had turned a deaf ear to his previous accomplishments and generally regarded him with no more respect than that bestowed on Aunt Jemima or those venerable uncles, Tom and Ben.
Sitting hunched over a small table, he riffled through a pile of photographs and clippings, some dated as far back as the twenties. There were reviews of his early movies, including the silent film In Old Kentucky, and his breakthrough role as Gummy in the 1929 talkie Hearts in Dixie. Then there were the hundreds of feature stories and personality pieces clipped from national magazines and Hollywood tabloids, as well as notices and announcements of appearances at venues as prestigious as New York's Cotton Club and Roxy Theater or as obscure or seedy as a Clinton, Iowa, Elks social club or a bottomless dive in Madison, Wisconsin. Among the photographs were shots of him and his original stage partner, "Johnnie" Lee; posed publicity shots in which he straddled the nose of a propeller plane while exclaiming, "Is you gwine bust?" or mugged with his friend and former costar Will Rogers; and scores of group celebrity photos with him—beginning as a spry twenty-five-year-old hobnobbing with glamorous chorus girls (a former wife among them) and a Who's Who list of black and white athletes, musicians, and actors that included Rudolph Valentino, Jack Johnson, Shirley Temple, Rex Ingram, Will Rogers, John Wayne, Louis Armstrong, Mae West, John Ford, Cab Calloway, Flip Wilson, and Muhammad Ali.
Lost in the reverie, for a time he was lured back to those more benevolent times. The money, women, lavish parties, cars, frantic adulation, and, yes, even that special sense of the gratification he'd derived from his majestic sham—it all flashed before him, swelled up in his mind. For a moment his eyes brightened and a sly grin lit his face. It too would have been recognizable to many of his former fans, at least to the observant ones who had peered beyond the indolent mask and spied the crafty con artist that lurked beneath it.
The surge of elation, however, was fleeting. And the old man turned to more recent clippings and articles. A few were always kept on the bureau by his bedside along with the legal papers he had filed against CBS and the producers of the 1968 television documentary Black History—Lost, Stolen, or Strayed for defamation of character. He never read them without seething or, if there was an audience, bursting into a frenzied, defensive harangue. Still, as if caught up in some Sisyphean ritual, he repeatedly returned to them. Today, alone, he read and silently fumed.
"The white man's Negro, the traditional, lazy, stupid, crapshooting, chicken-stealing idiot," he mouthed the words to himself, shaking his head. "Hollywood's Uncle Tom"; "an embarrassment to blacks"; "a mockery of upstanding Negro citizens"; "the willing accomplice to Hollywood's systematic denigration of the black man." The now-familiar phrases echoed in his mind and, had someone else been present, they would have noticed the veins at either side of his forehead distending and swelling. Caught up in the masochistic rite, the old man was unmindful.
The edema, when it came, was sudden, a slash of excruciating pain on the right side of his skull. It jolted him to his feet and, staggering one step backward, he clutched at his head as his eyes rolled back in their sockets. No one heard the feeble cry he uttered as he struggled to call out to his wife. But when, an instant later, blackness descended and he lurched forward, smashing into the table, the crash reverberated throughout the house. His jaw hit the table's edge, upending it and sending papers and photographs flying about the room.
When Bernice rushed in, he was unconscious. Sprawled on the floor, his left arm lay rigid at his side; his right arm was curled above his head. She shrieked when she saw his face. His mouth was twisted into a grotesque, gaping hole. He was breathing laboriously.
The medics arrived twenty minutes later. Once there, they whisked their comatose patient into an ambulance, which screeched away with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Inside, Bernice at his side, he lay perfectly still. Partially revived now, eyes open but unmoving, he stared vacantly at the vehicle's roof. He could not speak or move his jaw; it would be months before they discovered that it was broken. Nor could he move his left arm or leg. For now he was only capable of weakly flexing the fingers of his right hand, which he did from time to time as Bernice pressed them between her own palms.
His thoughts were elsewhere. Again he drifted back to the past—to brighter times, the carnival days before his world had been devastated, turned upside down. In that world, his folksy, Old South trickery and backwoods buffoonery had functioned flawlessly. In perfect synch with his audience, he had instinctively known how to wring laughter from their fears and prejudices as well as their stunted dreams and muted anger, how to connive, thrive, and brilliantly hold the spotlight.
Reprinted with the author's permission. Copyright 2005 Mel Watkins.