Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood’s First Black Film Star : NPR
although he never won an oscar, lincoln perry was america’s first black movie star. But Perry paid a heavy price for that distinction: He is best known as the Stepin Fetchit character, a confused, spluttering, indolent chump.
Seen through a modern lens, Perry’s “laziest man in the world” character can be painfully racist. Perry, a veteran of vaudeville’s “chitlin circuit,” got his break in Hollywood in 1927 when he was cast in the silent film Old Kentucky. According to film historian Mel Watkins, Perry created the character to stand out from other actors vying for the role.
“He acted like he didn’t know where he was, and he immediately caught the attention of the film’s producers and director,” says Watkins, author of the biography Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln. perry. “He was cast in the role on that basis: They didn’t know what to make of him. They were blown away by him.”
watkins says that, like most Americans, he thought of stepin fetchit as a symbol of the negative side of the black experience. But in investigating him, he discovered that Perry was very different from his attractive character. “This is an incredibly complex, intelligent man, and he was anything but what people think he is.”
In the mid-1930s, Perry was in his heyday, and black leaders were pressing Hollywood to remove from the screen the stereotype he was responsible for creating. they believed that stepin fetchit prevented white Americans from seeing blacks as capable of joining the mainstream.
Comedian Jimmy Walker knows something about being accused of perpetuating a negative stereotype. J.J.’s interpretation of him Evans on the sitcom Good Times was criticized as a comeback of the troubadour show.
“The way they make it sound, it’s like black people are permanently damaged by stepin fetchit,” Walker says. “And I don’t agree with that, I don’t think he’s a bad character. I think he’s a fun character.” walker points out that the quest character is actually a subversive trickster: he never came to quest for anything.
“The character of the lazy man that [Perry] played was based on something that came from slavery,” says watkins. “it was called ‘getting old massa’: break the tools, break the hoe, do anything to postpone the work that needed to be done.”
eventually, the white characters got exasperated and did the work themselves. “And the blacks totally understood and laughed heartily,” says Watkins. For his part, Perry was laughing all the way to the bench. By the mid-1930s, he was a millionaire with a fleet of luxury cars and expensive suits.
But by the late 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 the same salary and billing as his white co-stars, a battle he never won. In 1940, he walked away from Hollywood and within a few years he was broke. For 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 beaten,” Watkins says. “Although he was bitter, he still struggled to rebuild that image.”