Bookforum | Oct/Nov 2005

In some respects, Stepin Fetchit, the path-breaking or infamous—depending on your view—African-American character actor of the late 1920s and '30s, brings to mind Pee-wee Herman. Both were actors known by the names of their characters rather than by their real names, who came undone not just by their success as actors, but by the imaginative power and artistic imprisonment of the characters they created; the fact that their characterizations took on a life of their own to such an extent and with such intensity submerged their creators not just beneath an icon (not uncommon for an actor who plays a popular character like, say, James Bond) but behind an almost independent consciousness. (Fetchit was often in character, the slow-talking, sleepy, southern black malingerer speaking in dialect, in some form or fashion, when he gave newspaper and radio interviews, for instance. Pee-wee Herman did television interviews in character, as the childlike innocent adult in makeup and tight-fitting suit.)

Their characters' appeal, in part, was based on their self-awareness being seemingly unprompted by someone behind them, so the character seemed to have created the actor rather than the other way around. The sheer, dense, labyrinthine brilliance of the transformations these actors embodied was such that, in the end, it was not surprising that both did not move on from their roles but rather publicly and shamefully broke down under the strain of them, afflicted by guilt in performing them and a need to be redeemed as personalities independent of their roles.

Fetchit began to attack, at times fatuously and irrationally, the civil rights movement in the 1960s because it had so thoroughly denounced him as a relic, an unacceptable image for blacks. He seemed, quixotically, to be at war against modernity itself, against blacks throwing off the remnants of plantation mythology, which only further isolated him and made him more of a relic, an embarrassment to a younger generation. Paul Reubens, who played Pee-wee Herman, was discovered committing lewd acts in a porn theater, a clear revolt against the waiflike man-child he pretended to be. He, too, became an embarrassment.

What makes Stepin Fetchit's case all the more complex and all the more tragic is the element of race. For he was doubly trapped both by the art of his creation—in the case of Fetchit and Herman, the public seemed convinced that they weren't acting—and by the racial restrictions in the United States that made it virtually impossible for Fetchit to play anything other than the stereotypes of blacks that existed so stubbornly in the white mind.

Mel Watkins, Fetchit's biographer, repeatedly mentions his subject's ornery nature, that he was "a sly provocateur," "a prideful, race-conscious agitator for equal treatment in the entertainment field," because of his legendary, sometimes unwise battles with studio executives that eventually wrecked his career. Throughout Watkins's book, he refers to Fetchit as a trickster. There is no doubt that this is true. Indeed, one might think that the character created by Lincoln Perry, Stepin Fetchit, the lazy, complaining, slow-moving black who avoids doing work whenever he can, might be considered a heroic figure by a people who had been forced for a few hundred years to work very hard against their will, often at the threat of violence, for someone else's gain. (It must be remembered that Fetchit never wore blackface, unlike his inspiration, the great black minstrel Bert Williams, and he never ran away from ghosts or the intimations of ghosts with bugged eyes, as did other black male performers in film at that time, like his rival comics, Willie Best and Sam McDaniel, with whom he was often confused.) But the tragedy of race and the overwhelming nature of white hegemony make that perspective all but invisible. The hostile response to Fetchit on the part of blacks over time brings to mind Herman Melville's 1855 story of a slave revolt, "Benito Cereno." The slave leader, Babo, after he has taken over his master's ship, finds himself forced to act in precisely the same way he would have before, when in the presence of the white captain, Delano. Whether the black believes his degradation or merely plays it as a role, really, the result remains the same, even if the motivation is different. This seems to be what happened to Fetchit or ultimately how Fetchit came to be seen as a character in the black mind. He was never an artistic creation but rather a political one, which seemed to reinforce the signs of racial degradation rather than liberate blacks from them. It is possible, of course, that to some degree blacks misread Fetchit, something that Watkins suggests at the end of this biography.

Mel Watkins is the ideal person for the task of this biography, a long overdue work. He is also the author of On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy (1999) (first published in 1994 as On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying), so he knows and understands the theatrical and cultural world that shaped Stepin Fetchit and the black performers of his generation. And as Watkins makes clear, the key to understanding the world of the black actor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that "black minstrelsy . . . established itself as the cornerstone of African American performing arts." As Spike Lee demonstrated in his 2000 film Bamboozled, this connection to minstrelsy has been an uneasy legacy, at best.

Lincoln Perry was born in 1902 in Key West, Florida. He claimed his full name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry and that his father had named him after four presidents. From his father, a minor minstrel entertainer who also worked as a cook and a cigar wrapper, Perry got his passion for the stage. From his mother, a devout Catholic, he got his passion for Catholicism, which remained with him his entire life. Little is known about his childhood and early days as a performer because records are scant and Perry was unreliable in interviews when discussing his career.

Apparently, Perry left home as a teenager and became a performer in tent shows, a common way, along with medicine shows, for an inexperienced young black to get into show business. He drifted from one traveling show to another, as a singer, dancer, and comic. Watkins describes very well how especially tough it was for black performers during the period around World War I and the early 1920s with segregated accommodations, second-class theaters, and third-rate pay. Perry, like most black performers at the time, never
gave movies a thought. The few film roles for blacks at the time were usually played by whites in blackface. By the mid-'20s, Perry became an established performer in
black vaudeville, working with a partner and developing an act called Step and Fetch It, which he said was named after a racehorse of the same name that had finished in the money for him. Perry eventually took the name himself, for a stage persona he had been working on called the world's laziest man. Around this time, Perry also began writing a column on black performers for the Chicago Defender, a major black newspaper. His first film appearance was in 1927 in In Old Kentucky, which garnered him critical attention. His breakthrough role came in Hearts in Dixie, an all-black-cast film released in 1929. (When sound came to film in 1927, there was a short-lived interest in Hollywood in making all-black-cast films, as it was felt that blacks had voices that could be exploited. King Vidor's black-cast film, Hallelujah, was released shortly before Hearts in Dixie. As jazz and blues were popular at the time, black musical performers appeared in a number of shorts during this period, including Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong in animation by the Fleischer Brothers.)

Although there were other blacks who were performing in film at this point in the early '30s, including several child actors in the "Our Gang" comedies, as well as Paul Robeson, Stepin Fetchit became the first true black movie star and one of the first under contract to a studio. Fetchit's salary soared and he became, according to Perry, a "Bad Boy," a larger-than-life figure. He got into public rows along Central Avenue, in the heart of black Los Angeles, lived a life of sybaritic splendor that included fancy cars, swimming pools, and Chinese servants, and became increasingly temperamental about his treatment on the set. (Fetchit had an enormous ego and a great sense of pride about his craft. He would insist that he play his character in the way he wanted to play him. And it must be remembered that he was often, in most of his films, the only black person on the set.) All of this was written about in the black press with real glee. There were few, if any, complaints at this point about the kind of character that Fetchit played; blacks were overjoyed that someone of their race had achieved this level of fame in the film world. The concerns that were expressed had more to do with Fetchit's wild ways and spendthrift habits.

A pattern developed throughout the 1930s and '40s where Fetchit would so irritate the set bosses that he would be fired from a movie. Hollywood would lose interest, and he would have to return to the stage for work. Hollywood would beckon again, as Fetchit was a far better actor than most of the other comic black film actors, and he would promise to behave. (The only black actor he thought to be a true rival, and with whom he did not get along, was dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who replaced him in several films.) This would last for a time, and then there would be another breach. By the early '40s, Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, Clarence Muse, Louise Beavers, and other black actors at that time who played servants and comics had begun to be harshly criticized in the black press and by organizations like the NAACP, which wanted better roles for blacks. With the civil-rights leadership pushing for integration of the military and for blacks to fight in combat during World War II, images such as the ones fostered by Fetchit did not help the cause but rather perpetuated the stereotype that blacks were a childish, immature, and silly people with no sense of responsibility or dignity. This was the beginning of years of unease, if not outright hostility, between Fetchit and his black public. (It might be mentioned here that very few of Fetchit's films are available on video and DVD, including his most important, Hearts in Dixie. A good many highly racist, embarrassing, or, by today's standards, politically incorrect Hollywood films have been suppressed.)

As a new generation of black actors, including Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Edwards, and Eartha Kitt, came along in the 1940s and '50s, black comic actors like Fetchit eventually disappeared. Fetchit wound up a marginal performer in strip joints and hole-in-the-wall clubs. He only trusted and hung around with the black performers of his era—Louis Armstrong, Butterbeans and Susie, Buck and Bubbles, and those who understood black theater and performance as he did. He thought he could make a comeback in a television pilot in the late '60s, playing opposite comic Flip Wilson, but he had been so vilified by the civil rights movement that he had become virtually untouchable. The pilot went nowhere. Then in April 1969, his disputed son by his second wife, suffering a nervous breakdown, supposedly as a result of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., killed three people on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, including his wife, and wounded fifteen others before killing himself. Some said his son had gone crazy from bearing the burden of being Stepin Fetchit's son. Fetchit died, after a long illness, alone and forgotten, in 1985.

Watkins's biography is a solid effort, a generally compelling and certainly sympathetic examination of a complex and unfortunate man who had a genius of the wrong sort or for the wrong time. There are good accounts of the history of black comedy, blacks in film during the '20s, '30s, and '40s, and blacks on the vaudeville circuit. The book appears well researched, and the author seems to have uncovered as much information as is possible, given his subject and the lack of living informants and written records. Watkins is to be commended for his efforts in revisiting an important area of African-American and American popular culture with sensitivity and intelligence. Fetchit was certainly a man who thought a great deal about his place in history and the meaning of what he did. One might imagine that Fetchit, on his deathbed, came to a profoundly important realization: While dying is hard, comedy, for a black person in America, is harder, by far.

Gerald Early is professor of English and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also serves as director of the Center for the Humanities.