During his time, Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry’s success could have been considered the epitome of any man’s dream, regardless of race.
Born in Key West, Fla., in 1892 to Caribbean parents, Perry was the first black movie star, appearing in dozens of films across the 1920s and 1930s. He was a millionaire during the Great Depression, which afforded him the ability to drive a fleet of expensive cars, wear the finest top hats, employ a dozen Chinese maids and butlers, and frolic with starlets.
But Perry built his empire under a stage name representing a persona that became one of the most reviled in cinematic history — Stepin Fetchit.
“He is, for better or worse, the first black actor who makes a name for himself, has a definite star persona and lives as a high-style movie star,” said author and cultural critic Donald Bogle. “Something about Fetchit that I found interesting was that when he first started working in silent movies in the late ’20s, there was excitement for him as a black man working in the movies. The Hollywood system was so closed to the idea of a black star. Then it changes.”
The character — whose name in movies ranged from Swifty to Gummy to Croup to Spot — was dumb and lazy. His neck stooped, his big lips drooped to show his big white teeth, and his big eyes bulged.
His clothes were shabby and big, apparent hand-me-downs from the white characters he served and was abused by in movies such as “In Old Kentucky” and “Judge Priest.”
He was often unintelligible with a tendency to rub his head to search for answers that never came.
Hailed by some as a comic genius who could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Will Rodgers and Shirley Temple, Stepin Fetchit is mostly vilified now as an embarrassing race traitor. And while it was a different time when Fetchit was starring in movies, the few clips available online in 2019, which show Fetchit as a shuffling, befuddled fool, are painful to watch.
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“It is not black and white in terms of right or wrong,” said Champ Clark, a Los Angeles-based author who wrote the first full-length biography about the actor, “Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit.”
“He made decisions in the context of his time. It was a terrible moral dilemma for him,” Clark said. “He is a very complicated subject.”
In a 2000 essay, David Pilgrim, professor of sociology at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., described Fetchit as a “prototypical movie coon.” The coon label, born during American slavery, denotes a sort of black man-child who is “a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate buffoon.” And the character, while unhappy being a servant, is simply “too lazy or too cynical to attempt to change his lowly position,” wrote Pilgrim, who is also the founder of Ferris State’s Jim Crow Museum.
The coon caricature was one of the stock characters among minstrel performers and made the easy transition to movies in the early 1900s. Perry, who had done medicine shows and vaudeville, was able to capitalize on this in the guise of Stepin Fetchit.
“Fetchit was the embodiment of the nitwit black man,” Pilgrim wrote in his essay. “This old-fashioned coon character could never correctly pronounce a multisyllabic word. He was portrayed as a dunce. In “Stand Up and Cheer,” he was tricked into thinking that a ‘talking’ penguin was really Jimmy Durante. Fetchit, scratching his head, eyes bulging, portrayed the coon so realistically that whites thought they were seeing a real racial type.”
Bogle, who wrote about Fetchit in his 2001 book “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films,” now in its 5th printing, sees in Fetchit a genuinely talented performer.
“In ‘Judge Priest’ with Will Rodgers, Fetchit makes the most of his screen time. He doesn’t let any other actor rush him,” said Bogle. “He creates the rhythm.”
But the author said there was also a certain kind of nihilism going on of a “man withdrawing from the world.” Stepin Fetchit’s role in “Judge Priest” was not unlike the characters Perry had played in vaudeville before black audiences. But playing it against white actors gave it a different context.
The opening scene of the 1934 film shows Fetchit in court for stealing chickens. He is asleep.
“He is not even alert enough to defend himself,” Bogle said. “They refer to him as boy and he doesn’t respond. All of that can be read as him pulling back from it all. There is also a glimmer of interracial male bonding in the film. But in actuality, Fetchit is something of a pet for Will Rodgers. That is what the African-American audience was seeing.”
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By the late 1930s and early 1940s, Fetchit was a pariah, rejected by blacks who believed he had inflicted the most loathsome of stereotypes on a race wrestling with Jim Crow while still dealing with the lingering wounds of slavery.
In 1942, Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, specifically cited Stepin Fetchit as a problem when he lobbied Hollywood movie studios to end demeaning portrayals of blacks.
“The name Stepin Fetchit came to be the ultimate term for negative racial stereotypes,” Clark said. “Nobody wanted anything to do with Lincoln Perry and he was devastated by that.”
In 1947, when movie roles dried up, Fetchit declared bankruptcy and later made his living performing in nightclubs. In the 1960s, he was a charity patient at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
In 1970 he filed a $3 million defamation lawsuit against CBS for allegedly holding him up “to hatred, contempt and ridicule” in the documentary “Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed.”
Bill Cosby, who narrated the documentary, said of him: “The tradition of the lazy, stupid, crap-shooting, chicken-stealing idiot was popularized by an actor named Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. The cat made $2 million in five years in the middle ’30s, and everyone who ever saw a movie laughed at Stepin Fetchit.”
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In his defense of the character that made him rich but ultimately broke him, Perry said in 1968: “I became the first Negro entertainer to become a millionaire. All the things that Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier have done wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t broken that law. I set up thrones for them to come and sit on.”
Any attempts at a comeback failed for Perry. Still, he got a Stepin Fetchit star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, received a Special Image Award from the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP in 1976, and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.
Bogle, whose latest book, “Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers,” comes out in May, said critically assessing Perry’s career as Fetchit is “complicated and complex.”
“I really don’t think he thought about the damage,” the author said.
“I don’t really dislike him, but I feel saddened by the waste of talent.”
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
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