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Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry
Synopses & Reviews
The first African American movie star, Lincoln Perry, a.k.a. Stepin Fetchit, is an iconic figure in the history of American popular culture. In the late 1920s and ’30s he was both renowned and reviled for his surrealistic portrayals of the era’s most popular comic stereotype—the lazy, shiftless Negro. After his breakthrough role in the 1929 film Hearts in Dixie, Perry was hailed as “the best actor that the talking pictures have produced” by the critic Robert Benchley.
Having run away from his Key West home in his early teens, Perry found success as a vaude-
villian before making his way to California. The tall, lanky actor became the first millionaire black movie star when he appeared in a string of hit movies as the whiny, ever-perplexed, slow-talking comic sidekick. Perry was the highest paid and most popular black comedian in America during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but his ongoing battles with movie executives, his rowdy offscreen behavior, and his extravagant spending kept him in gossip-column headlines. Perry’s spendthrift ways and exorbitant lifestyle hastened his decline and, in 1947, having squandered or given away his fortune, he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
In 1964 Perry was discovered in the charity ward of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital; he later turned up in Muhammad Ali’s entourage. In 1972 he unsuccessfully sued CBS for defamation because of a television program that ridiculed the type of characters he had portrayed. But his achievements were eventually acknowledged: in 1976 the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP gave him its Special Image Award for having opened the door for many a succeeding African American film star, and in 1978 he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In Stepin Fetchit, Mel Watkins has given us the first definitive, full-scale biography of an entertainment legend.
"In the pathbreaking 1968 documentary 'Black History, Lost, Stolen or Strayed,' narrator Bill Cosby identified the performances of film actor Stepin Fetchit as a major force in perpetuating the demeaning black stereotype 'of the lazy, stupid, crapshooter, chicken-stealing idiot.' This would become many Americans' lasting impression of Stepin Fetchit — who in the late 1920s became Hollywood's... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) first black star. Sleepy-eyed, dimwitted, always scheming to avoid work, his characters stumbled across the screen with a painful lethargy, mumbling incoherently. For many, his image burns in the American memory as nightmarish and destructive. In his biography of the actor, Mel Watkins tackles one of the most difficult figures in the history of both cinema and the African-American experience. With insight and nuance, he deftly separates the man from the roles he played. 'On the Real Side,' Watkins's earlier seminal work, exposed how African-Americans used humor indirectly to critique white society, a practice dating back to slavery, when channels of protest were virtually closed. Stepin Fetchit, Watkins convincingly contends, carried on this tradition of subversive comedy and used it to undermine the very stereotypes he portrayed. Born in 1902 in Key West, Fla., he was given the name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. The son of West Indian immigrants, he was raised Catholic, a factor that Watkins asserts was significant in Perry's development of his sense of self. Perry grew up in the Jim Crow South, and his family life was marked with unhappiness. His father, an aspiring performer, was often absent, and his mother, whom he adored, died when he was only 12. Shuttled off to a Catholic boarding school, Perry rebelled and at 14 ran away to join a medicine show. As a teenager, he honed his comedy on the road in carnivals and black theaters. By the 1920s, he was touring with a partner in an act they called 'Step and Fetch It,' originally the name of a racehorse that had won Perry a nice purse. Additionally, Perry signed on as a correspondent for an African-American newspaper, his feature stories revealing his eloquence and drive to succeed. It is no surprise that the ambitious Perry ended up in Los Angeles. In 1927, adopting the name Stepin Fetchit, he broke into movies, appearing in the silent film 'In Old Kentucky.' After winning accolades for his performances he was signed by Fox in 1928 to a long-term contract, the first ever extended to a black entertainer. Perry reveled in his success, spending lavishly, dressing extravagantly and cruising the city in automobiles bearing his name emblazoned in lights. Parties and scandalous romantic trysts occupied his nights. Before the cameras, he played baffled and silly servants. Yet off-screen, his tabloid-style dalliances and his growing recalcitrance on film sets functioned as resistance to white Hollywood's racist atmosphere. During his heyday, which ran through the mid-1930s, Perry scored three major long-term contracts. He lost each one because of temperamental outbursts, tardiness and absences, and, in at least one instance, his refusal to deliver dialogue he considered demeaning. Watkins points out what many observers have ignored — that Perry worked in an extremely hostile environment. Although attempts to rebel against the industry's discrimination usually resulted in exile, he was too proud to compromise for very long. But Stepin Fetchit was a box-office draw, and that, combined with Perry's aggressive lobbying for jobs, compelled Hollywood to resurrect him repeatedly. For years, he bounced between screen and stage. Yet in the 1950s, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, Fetchit was forced off the screen. He made comebacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, playing roles that finally allowed him to display his wide range of talents. He was sidelined by a stroke in 1976, and died in 1985. Watkins contends that Perry was one of the most skilled performers of his era and forged a characterization that was rebellious at its core — a parody of black stereotypes. In his view, Stepin Fetchit's cinematic insubordination was subtle but nonetheless important. The actor's garbled delivery allowed him to improvise dialogue that defied the disparagement of his roles. Within this context, it is clear that when Will Rogers in 'Judge Priest' (1934) dispatches Stepin Fetchit with a 'Hurry up,' Perry's response, as he ambles slowly off — 'I'm practically running now' — was intended as barbed sarcasm directed at the white man. Rogers seemed to have missed the joke, as did many others. A popular figure among whites, Stepin Fetchit angered many African-Americans. However, he did have black fans who admired his satirical style and his success within the studio system. It was his boldness in dealing with the white movie world that distinguished Perry from his African-American counterparts in the industry. They believed that his outrageous behavior and his run-ins, not only with studio heads but also with the law, hindered their efforts to garner respect within Hollywood as well as society at large. But Perry lived as he pleased. He was, as Watkins reveals, arrogant, prideful, selfish, unpredictable and quarrelsome. While his anger revealed the frustrations of a gifted man stifled by limited opportunities and racism, its magnitude suggests that its origins went much deeper. Perry was a batterer whose violent abuse drove his first wife away. This aspect of his personality may deserve more attention. Still, Watkins successfully provides a window into a fascinating but unsettling world. Rescuing Perry from obscurity, he has corrected many of the misconceptions about the man and the character he portrayed. While Perry emerges as a tragic and often unsympathetic character, Watkins tells a story that not only needed to be told but also, in a time when African-American performers still struggle for good roles, should not be forgotten." Reviewed by Jill Watts, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this richly detailed biography, Watkins follows the life and career of Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry, who was renowned--and reviled--for his portrayals of "Uncle Tom"-like characters in films during the 1920s and 1930s.
About the Author
Mel Watkins, a former editor and writer for The New York Times Book Review, is the author of Dancing with Strangers, a Literary Guild Selection, and of the highly acclaimed On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy. He lives in New York City.
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