Stepin Fetchit: The First Black Superstar

sfHollywood has never been short on stereotypes. Modern day filmmakers are no less to blame than their predecessors, propagating beauty as an image defined by six packs, blonde hair, and features usually associated with the Caucasian race. Segregation in film is no longer as blatant; though if we are to look at it objectively, the practice of categorizing people is so deeply rooted that we will never escape its limitations. In the early 20th century, African-Americans were theatrically divided into two personas: the Sambo and the Coon. Each of these “distinctions” was identifiable by trademark characteristics, many of which were represented, and even perpetuated, by Black performers on stage and screen. Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, professionally known as Stepin Fetchit, was perhaps the most celebrated Black actor of his day, though his shtick remains the subject of much debate among historians and activists.

Lincoln Perry began his controversial life on May 30, 1902 (some sources claim 1892), born to West Indian immigrant parents in Key West, Florida. In his early teens, Perry ran away and joined the vaudeville circuit, reportedly taking the stage name “Stepin Fetchit” from a lucky racehorse who won him $30. As a performer, Stepin Fetchit capitalized on the “coon” image, which consisted of acting aloof and somewhat dim-witted to thwart his white oppressors. This image was routinely identified with the younger, more rebellious Blacks whose resistance to authority directly contrasted the “sambo” custom of submitting to a Jim Crow mentality. Though opting for a revolution, the quintessential “coon” was a lazy, slow-moving, mentally detached individual with a droopy lower lip, heavy-lidded eyes and incomprehensible speech patterns. This performance was all smoke and mirrors; it was played up to frustrate the White “Massa”, who eventually became so goaded by the inadequacies of his Black workers that he would end up doing the work himself. The character was, by no means, an accurate depiction of Lincoln Perry, an intellectual, literate man who wrote for a popular African American newspaper called “The Chicago Defender”.

At a time when African-American performers were relegated to playing maids and servants, Stepin Fetchit descended on Hollywood like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His plan was to masquerade as the “coon” stereotype while secretly integrating with the major, White superstars of the day. He created “The Laziest Man in the World” guise as a way of capitalizing on the expected function of African-Americans. It was almost a direct echo of the “coon” related to slavery – Perry exaggerated “Black defects” to be accepted by his “White superiors”, thereby successfully obtaining that which had been his ultimate goal. And it worked. Stepin Fetchit became the first African American actor to become a millionaire, owning 12 automobiles and employing 16 servants at the peak of his career.

Stepin Fetchit made his debut in 1925’s The Mysterious Stranger, though many sources claim his next film, In Old Kentucky, to be his first appearance. To win his role as “Highpockets” in Kentucky, Fetchit played up the “coon” stereotype before, during, and after his audition. However, subsequent roles pigeonholed him as “Slave’s Husband” and “Negro Man”. By the end of the 1920s, Fetchit was a veritable star, appearing alongside fellow African-American performer Clarence Muse in 1929’s Hearts in Dixie. It was Hollywood’s first all-black film and a chance for Fetchit to shine.

The 1930s found Stepin Fetchit on a rollercoaster. The early part of the decade was a whirlwind; he had become Fox Pictures’ first black star. As such, the studio decided to take advantage of his private life. His accumulating wealth and lust for extravagance was no secret in Hollywood. This lavishness was slightly distorted in the media, with tales of Fetchit’s six houses, sixteen Chinese servants, twelve cars (one of which was a champagne-pink Cadillac with his name emblazoned on the side in neon lights), and crazy parties. The flashy publicity followed him for years to come. A New York Times article from 1951 began with the sentence, “Stepin Fetchit, the Negro actor who used to startle the natives with his pink Cadillacs and $1000 cashmere suits…” By the mid-30s, when Fetchit was at the height of stardom, Black leaders began to pressure filmmakers to expel the negative images that they believed were a hindrance to racial equality. Fetchit, who had made a name for himself mocking his own race, was considered “part of the problem” rather than a trailblazer. The NAACP made considerable progress by the end of the decade, forcing Fetchit into constant battles with Fox Studios for respectable pay and billing equal to his White contemporaries. It was the beginning of the end.

During the following years, Stepin Fetchit’s star began to diminish. His mainstream career was dormant and he had become a regular in “race films” like 1945’s Big Timers. By 1947, after years of mishandling his fortune, Fetchit was forced to declare bankruptcy. His famous characterization of Blacks was no longer a celebrated image, but rather, a likeness no longer welcome in a society working toward non-segregation. Consequently, Stepin Fetchit faded into anonymity.

In 1976, while writing his book, Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, author Mel Watkins located the aging actor in a nursing home, recovering from a stroke. Of the former Stepin Fetchit, Watkins said, “He wasn’t defeated. Although he was bitter, he was still fighting to reconstruct that image.”

Ironically, the NAACP, partially responsible for the downfall of Perry’s career, awarded him a Special Image Award in 1976. Though his antics were thought degrading to African-Americans, the organization could not deny his lasting impact and the doors he opened for Blacks in the motion picture industry. He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.

Lincoln Perry’s “Stepin Fetchit” inspired a legion of imitators, most notably Willie Best (aka Sleep ‘n’ Eat) and Mantan Moreland. Perry had a son named Donald Lambright, who in 1969, shot and killed his wife before going on a shooting spree with a high-powered rifle along a 20-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Before it was all over Lambright had killed three more people and wounded fifteen others.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry died on November 19, 1985. He was survived by another son Jemajo, and a sister Marie Carter Perry. He has a star on the Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures at 1751 Vine Street in Hollywood, CA.