Fetchit, Stepin (1902-1984)

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Fetchit, Stepin (1902-1984)

The first black actor to receive featured billing in Hollywood movies, Stepin Fetchit has passed into the culture as an emblem of the shameful racial stereotyping that reflected early twentieth century America's perception of blacks as servile, lazy, feckless, and stupid. However, throughout the gravy years of his career during the 1930s, this talented actor entertained movie audiences with his skillfully comic portrayals of slow-talking, dim-witted, shuffling slaves and servants, and earned a large, albeit temporary, fortune.

Born Lincoln Perry in Key West, Florida, on May 30, 1902, he went on the road as an entertainer in medicine shows and vaudeville before arriving in Hollywood in the late 1920s. His stage act with comic Ed Lee was spotted by a talent scout, engaged by Fox studios, and he took his screen name, which turned out ironically appropriate to many of his screen roles, from a racehorse on whom he had placed a winning bet. He was in the 1929 part-talkie version of Show Boat, the same year that he played a major role in the first all-black musical, Hearts of Dixie. As Gummy, a workshy layabout on a cotton plantation, Fetchit stole the show, but none of the several subsequent musicals in which he was cast gave him a similar opportunity to shine with such prominence.

Fetchit worked steadily throughout the 1930s, rapidly becoming one of the best known, best-loved, and most instantly recognizable of black actors. However, by virtue of his color, he was more often than not confined to cameos and small featured roles. Among the 26 films he made between 1929 and 1935 were three with Shirley Temple, most noticeably in Stand Up and Cheer (1934), and five for director John Ford. The Ford films included Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935), one of four popular Will Rogers films in which Fetchit played the star's servant and comic sidekick.

Invariably typecast as the arch-coon, a tall, bald servant wearing a grin and hand-me-down clothes too large and loose for his lanky frame, his servile image eventually alienated him from black audiences and offended civil rights advocates. Walter White of the NAACP declared that Fetchit's flunky roles reinforced the white man's racist image of blacks, while the black press repeatedly criticized his perpetration of unwelcome stereotypes. By the mid-1940s, these protests against his racist caricatures curtailed his career. Moreover, he had dissipated his wealth on the extravagant lifestyle he had adopted—at one time he owned six houses and 12 cars, and employed 16 Chinese servants—and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1947, the year he starred in Miracle in Harlem.

In the early 1950s, after making only a handful of movies, some of them all-black productions, Fetchit disappeared from the screen for 20 years and, in the late 1960s, having suffered his share of personal tragedy with the death of his son by suicide, he converted to the Black Muslim faith. In 1970, he unsuccessfully brought a defamation suit against CBS for using "out of context" clips from his work to demonstrate black caricature in American movies. The 1970s, brought something of a renaissance to the then almost forgotten actor. He returned to the Hollywood screen with roles in Amazing Grace (1974) and Won Ton Ton the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1975); in 1976, his earlier perceived slights on his own people forgiven, he received a special Image Award from the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, and in 1978 he entered the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Stepin Fetchit died in Woodland Hills, California, on November 19, 1984. Over the years, film scholars had come to recognize the wealth of comic talent and the flawless timing that underpinned the characters who defined his screen image. Robert Townsend paid him lasting tribute with his brilliant impersonation of Fetchit in his own independent film, Hollywood Shuffle (1987), and, thanks to television reruns of movies, he lives on for later generations as more than just a quaint name.

—Peter C. Holloran

Further Reading:

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York, Continuum, 1989.

Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. New York, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Leab, Daniel J. From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Patterson, Lindsay, ed. Black Films and Film-Makers: A Comprehensive Anthology from Stereotype to Superhero. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1975.