Stepin Fetchit: The Controversial First Black Film Star

Hello Friends:

Here is a nice article from our Guest Poster, Imogen Taylor. The article is about an artist from the Harlem Renaissance era who at one point in his life was the first millionaire African American actor, a self-made comedian, but controversial, and at another a forgotten poor man who lived his last years miserably and died in obscurity. He became controversial because of the African American character he created and played—a stereotypical character that upset his community, but entertained the mainstream. Today, some believe his acting was satirical, while others think he purposely exploited stereotypes of his community during those days of segregation. You will read more captivating details within the article.

Enjoy! 🙂

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Stepin Fetchit: The Controversial First Black Film Star 

By Imogen Taylor 

image courtesy of nndb.com

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (1902-1985) isn’t necessarily a recognisable name, or one that trips off the tongue with ease. When he became the first professional African-American film star in the 1920s he changed it and adopted the moniker Stepin Fetchit. However, for all the laughter and smiles he brought, there was also a fair amount of controversy too.

His Early Life

Precious little is known about his roots. Not even the names of his parents are to be found, though it is rumoured his mother was descended from enslaved Africans who had been living in Nassau and that his father was born in Jamaica. He himself was born in Florida, and the family moved to Tampa when he was ten years old.

It was during his teen years that he began to develop a love of comic acting and clowning around, and was very often to be found performing silly, gag laden routines for his friends. When he was in his early teens, he ran away to join a vaudeville act instead of doing as his mother wished, which was staying close by in Florida and training in a respectable profession. At a time when there was precious little sight of any black actors or actresses on the film screen, Stepin (who had found his stage name by playing round with the words “Step in and fetch it”) made his way as a noted comic actor and began to develop a character that came to be called “The Laziest Man in the World” and here is where the controversy starts.

Making Waves

Contrary to the image he portrayed as his “The Laziest Man in the World” character, in reality Fetchit was a highly intelligent, well read man. He’d worked as a writer as well as an actor and was noted for his journalistic work on “The Chicago Defender”. When he began in film comedy, the roles he was taking and the stunts he performed were on a par with that of the all time greats like Keaton, Chaplin and Arbuckle. However, it was how he portrayed himself that caused the most consternation amongst African-Americans during the late 1920s and 1930s.

His personification of “The Laziest Man in the World” was something that many people found offensive. He shuffled around, he spoke gibberish, he was generally seen as a lazy bum that did everything he could to not work or do anything of value. African-American people felt that by continually appearing as this character he was undermining their struggle to be heard and to gain equal rights. At the time, a large proportion of the white audiences visiting the flickers seemingly believed this act entirely and felt that what they were viewing was a true representation of everything they’d been told.

A counter argument was put forward at the time which suggested that although the character he was portraying was in essence a negative stereotype, he was in fact blazing a trail for black actors to become successful in the movies and other art forms at a time when it was unheard of. By the 1930s, Stepin had become a multi-millionaire from all his film roles and hard work and could afford to live in the lap of luxury, travelling in first class without having to go about earning air miles or saving every last penny for foreign travel like most people would have to do today in order to be able to afford a holiday. This juxtaposition of his life of opulence and wanting for nothing went completely against the image of him being the laziest man alive.

Fetchit in action 

Image courtesy of frogstorm.com

This is one of his roles from the mid 1930s, from a film called “Judge Priest” in which he starred as a character called Jeff Poindexter alongside the famous actor Will Rogers. In a way, watching this short excerpt, it becomes obvious why people were so upset at what they saw. Fetchit’s character is being prosecuted for stealing a chicken. He falls asleep in court; he can barely stand up straight, his lines are spoken in a slurring fashion: Judge Priest excerpt (1934).

Interestingly, this film also co-starred Hattie McDaniel, who worked with Stepin many times during the course of both their careers. McDaniel became the first African-American actor to win an Oscar for her role as “Mammy” in “Gone With The Wind”. There was quite a difference between the way her work was viewed and the way Stepin’s was received, despite them both facing the challenges of segregation and racism in their daily lives.

The end?

It’s probably no surprise that most of Fetchit’s film appearances are no longer available. Most of the silents he made are gone, many of his films from the 1930s are not available to buy and some of the films he made during the 1940s have been butchered to remove his character, regardless of whether or not it left holes in the plot or made the stories nonsensical.

By 1947, he’d lost most of the money he’d worked so hard for and by 1960 he was destitute, living on charity handouts in Chicago. He died in 1985, following a bout of pneumonia, leaving behind his third wife and a son, Jemanjo. Whether you agree with his performances or not and the way he portrayed himself as a character actor, the fact is that he managed to forge a successful career in the US during what were very uncertain times for all African-Americans, and that surely has to count for something.

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2 thoughts on “Stepin Fetchit: The Controversial First Black Film Star

  1. Wow, I’m sad to see that his works are disappearing. Just because people don’t support his portrayal of African Americans, I don’t think that’s justification to try to erase him from history. I’m not necessarily thrilled with his acting either, after watching Judge Priest and learning more about him through my classes at Howard U, but I still think he serves a purpose in Black history. And on the idea that his acting was supposedly satirical, I’m not sure I buy that. To successfully do satire, you have to have a receptive and appropriate audience that will understand and benefit from that satire. I don’t think Stepin Fetchit had that. The Blacks were not laughing along with him (for the most part) and the whites mostly just pointed and laughed at him. That’s hardly satire.

    Awesome article, thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. You are welcome, Genet! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Yes it is indeed troubling that people try to erase him from historical record. I think that it is important to keep historical materials whether they were good or bad at that time. How else are we gonna learn from history? I believe those who try to “erase” him are acting immature despite their “good” intentions. I am not thrilled with his acting either. But after I watched that same film, Judge Priest, I in fact think that when you look at it from now perspective, it did as much good as it did bad. The bad part was of course the film exacerbated the stereotype of the African American community at the time. The good part was that it also brought to light the nature of racism that African American people faced during those days. So it was a double aged sword.

      I agree with you about the satire part. I believe what they mean by that is that though the actor might not have done it intentionally, when you think of it now, his acting could fall into satire, given the fact it was a comedy, a comedy that sadly reflected the reality of the time, though exploitive.

      Thank you Genet for the comment! 🙂

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