It is hard to watch but there is a movie on youtube called Charlie Chan in Egypt. In the movie is StepNfetchit. A terrible portrait of a Black Man in the movie. Today one winces on watching it. And yet this actor became a millionaire for a short period of time.Then from riches to rags. It is a sad tale to be true and yet it happened. Hollywood is a hard place where people go to hell over a life time.
Stepin Fetchit remains one of the most controversial movie actors in American history. While he was undoubtedly one of the most talented physical comedians ever to do his shtick on the Big Screen, achieving the rare status of being a character actor/supporting player who actually achieved superstar status in the 1930s (becoming a millionaire to boot), his characterization as a lazy, slow-witted, jive-talkin’ “coon” offended African-Americans at the time he was a major attraction in motion pictures (primarily the 1930s) and still offends African-Americans in the 21st century, more than 50 years after he had faded from the screen. Yet some African-Americans claim him as the first black superstar, and thus a trailblazer for others of his “race.” The controversy over Stepin Fetchit remains alive to this day, with two biographies published about him in 2005.
Stepin Fetchit was the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who claimed a birth date of May 30, 1902, but he may have been born as early as 1892. Perry was born in Key West, Florida, to West Indian immigrant parents. Sometime in his teens Perry became a comic performer. A literate and very intelligent man who wrote for the premier African-American newspaper, “The Chicago Defender,” Perry evolved a character called “The Laziest Man In the World” as part of a two-man vaudeville act that broke through to play the white circuits. Eventually, he went solo (“Stepin Fetchit” likely was the original name of the act covering both performers, as “Step ‘n Fetchit.” As a solo, he kept the name).
While some believe that his stage name is a contraction of “step and fetch it”, implying a servile persona (the so-called “Tom”) that is synonymous with degrading racial stereotypes in popular entertainment in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Perry claimed he got the name from a race horse. However, it’s important to make the distinction that African-American cultural historians do (while at no time condoning Perry’s career) – rather than a servile Tom (named after Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s “Uncle Tom”), Stepin Fetchit was an evolution of a later construction, the “coon” who undermined his white oppressors by denying his labor and cooperation through an act of defiance that included the appearance of being lazy and stupid. Essential to the “coon” persona was talking in what to white ears is gibberish (which Perry excelled at), but which to black folk can be understood and contains barbed insults to “The Man.” What rankles so badly (since the Coon remains a stereotype that resonates in African-American culture) is that white audiences swallowed Perry’s Stepin Fetchit act whole, as a true representation of a “Negro.”
The “Coon” persona mitigated the low status accorded African-Americans by whites by feigning near-idiocy in order to frustrate whites by ironically fulfilling their low expectations (the “Tom,” by contrast, is praised by whites for his good work and loyalty. A parallel racial caricaturization of black men by whites, the “buck,” is the repository of their racial and sexual fears, and still can be seen in blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and, more recently, in the “gangsta” rapper). Perry used this mitigation stratagem when dealing with whites in real life, allegedly maintaining a coon persona while auditioning for a role in _In Old Kentucky (1938)_, where he stayed in the Stepin Fetchit character before and after the audition. Often, while making movies in which he found the lines offensive, Perry would skip or mumble lines he did not like, pretending to be too stupid to comprehend the script.
The “Coon” stereotype existed long before Perry decided to adopt it (its prevalence as a defiance stratagem intensified after the gains that African-Americans had made in the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era were rolled back by segregationist Jim Crow laws, when an “uppity” African-American could well wind up hanging from a tree at the end of a rope). However, he was such a hit with white audiences that his Stepin Fetchit persona popularized the “Coon” image to an unprecedented degree in the medium of film, and many stereotypical black movie characters, including the child Stymie in the “Our Gang” comedy series, were based upon Stepin Fetchit to cash in on his popularity.
Perry reached the apex of his career co-starring with Will Rogers in several films, including John Fords Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). When viewed objectively today (without revulsion), Perry’s Stepin Fetchit character can be seen as more than holding his own with the great Rogers, achieving some kind of inverse parity with his white “massa” through the sheer forcefulness of his personality. Rogers clearly is fond of Perry (if not Stepin Fetchit), although he is liable to denigrate the Stepin Fetchit character unmercifully. In a way, it provides a window on race relations in that Southern and other white Americans could experience fondness for black folk, but would “put them in their place” at any time, for any reason.
Stepin Fetchit became the first African-American actor to become a millionaire, but he mishandled his fortune through lavish overspending and was bankrupt by 1947. In the 1940s his career in mainstream “white” cinema was essentially over, and he crossed over into “race” films, movies made specifically for (and sometimes by) African-Americans, where he essentially played the same shtick. By 1960 he was a charity case in Chicago.
Perry had been denounced by the same civil rights leaders that eventually forced CBS to mothball the popular TV series The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951), as they didn’t want any stereotypes pandering to the inherent racism of whites while they were trying to obtain equality. Cast out and an exile in the 1960s, Perry was rehabilitated by heavyweight champion Cassius Clay–the symbol of African-American racial pride who had become Muhammad Ali–making him one of his entourage after Perry allegedly showed him a punch that Ali successfully used during a fight. Following Ali’s example, Perry converted to the ‘Honorable Elijiah Muhammad”s Lost-Found Nation of Islam (the so-called “Black Muslims”). He was saved.