The Road Already Traveled: Stepin Fetchit and the Black Image in American Film
To this day Lincoln Perry aka Stepin Fetchit remains one of the most controversial figures in motion picture history. While some of his detractors grudgingly admit that he was one of the most talented comedians ever they can never forgive him for his depiction of the lazy shiftless Negro that Whites laughed at.
They weren’t the only ones of course. Perry at his height was quite popular across a wide spectrum of the movie going public including a huge legion of fans in Black America. The late Ossie Davis had a curious explanation for Perry’s fame in the Black community. Davis said they laughed uproariously at Perry because in all honesty they didn’t know any Negroes like him.
Indeed it’s easy to concede that point. Perry had created a character so exaggerated in speech, gesture and movement that there was no way to take him seriously. In fact the only thing to do was laugh. For behind this caricature was a brilliant comedic mind that through trial and error and years of honing his craft on the American stage had created one of the most memorable characters of his time.
But it was exactly that laughter which Stepin Fetchit’s most severe critics point to. In their opinion it’s not Perry’s sense of comic timing or turn of the phrase or even the witty comments seemingly mumbled under his breath that make him standout.
No for them it was what he represented that makes them still hate the man some thirty years after his death in 1985.
Before His Time
Perry to be fair did not create the caricature they so despise. That was born in the early 19th century when White performers put burnt cork on their face and started mimicking the speech and dances of Black slaves. Within a very short period of time the United States had created its first original art form known as the minstrel show.
If they had been truly accurate depictions of Black America, Perry may have gotten a pass later on. Instead these portrayals were racism at their worst. Every single negative idea you could have about a group of people was packed into the minstrel show.
Blacks were lazy, frightened, brutish, stupid, superstitious, childish, ignorant with a penchant for buffoonery unmatched. This was no tribute but rather a slash and burn approach that denigrated Blacks at every turn.
Even Black performers that jumped on the minstrel bandwagon later on were forced into the same stereotypes albeit with more subtle digs at White America.
Rules of The Game
Yet no matter how talented these entertainers were or had the potential to be certain things needed to be understood. One of them was presenting fully drawn characters with dignity and humanity was an absolute no-no. The majority of White audiences of that time were not interested in seeing anything that offended their sensibilities. And Black people as people was one of those offenses.
Black stereotypes were part of Americana and the volatile climate of that time period enforced it. Race riots and lynchings occurred on an alarmingly frequent basis for over a half a century. Anything that went against the norm in regards to perceptions amounted to playing Russian roulette with Blacks on the losing end.
The Minstrel Goes Hollywood
Those stereotypes became ingrained and made their way to the silver screen fully intact. People like Edgar Blue Washington and Charles Moore had made a living playing these types of roles long before Stepin Fetchit arrived on the scene.
And if they weren’t available (or even if they were) Hollywood had no problem going back to the roots of the minstrel show and putting White actors in blackface.
So it was all in place when Perry made his cinematic debut. His critics knew good and well; the history of what preceded him. They were never happy about the negative stereotypes but they reserved a special kind of scorn for Stepin Fetchit in particular.
Why? Because thanks to his brand of genius Perry played the role too well for their taste.
So Old It's New
How well? To the point that he became during that period the highest paid Black entertainer in the world. Stepin Fetchit in a film was a sure fire box office draw and he delivered. No matter how painful it is to watch at times Perry was an artist at the top of his game.
But in many ways Perry was nothing more than a glorified version of a Blue Washington in that he never rose to star level. Yes he was famous and highly paid but Fox Studio where he worked and had his greatest success never saw fit to make him the star of any of their productions. He may have had a key role or just a walk on where he got to do his shtick but that was it.
No other studio was bidding for his services and when he did threaten to leave Fox they had no problem helping him pack his bags. Perry in many ways never figured out that since that stereotype was already in place before he got to Hollywood replacing him was never an issue.
It may not have been acceptable by that time to put a white actor in blackface (although they were definitely still doing it) but the dream factory had many Stepin Fetchit clones (Willie Best for one) to take his place.
Could they do it as good as Lincoln Perry? You be the judge.
Apologize For What?
“I often think about these roles I have to play. Most of them are pretty broad. Sometimes I tell the director and he cuts out the real bad parts… But what’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.” Willie Best
"The Negro, as a race, has come too far in the last few years for me to dash his hopes, dreams, and accomplishments against a celluloid wall, by making pictures that show him to be a slow-thinking, stupid dolt...Millions of people may have thought that my acting was comical, but I know now that it wasn't always so funny to my own people." Mantan Moreland
“It was not Martin Luther King that emancipated the modern Negro but Stepin Fetchit” Lincoln Perry
One of these things is not like the other two. Best and Mantan Moreland acknowledged the reality of what they were doing.
Perry unfortunately held on stubbornly to his delusions of grandeur. Actually trying to convince people (or maybe just himself) that what he was doing was for the greater good of the African American community.
Except of course it wasn’t
The Hard Reality
Martin Luther King lived under constant threat of death and eventually lost his life in an effort to gain equality for Black Americans.
None of the above happened to Perry. Whites Only signs, redlining when it came to housing and denigration of an entire race did not come to an end. For many watching Perry’s antics was the green light to keep doing what they were doing. He may not have sanctioned it outright but Stepin Fetchit was hardly the reason anyone thought to stop it.
No one can or should try to take away the comedic gifts and talents performers like Perry possessed. It helped to make him a superstar. But that was only part of the equation. For all of his posturing Stepin Fetchit had to know that it was good old fashioned American racism that was the driving force in making him a success.