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Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's First Black Film Star

Although he never won an Oscar, Lincoln Perry was America's first black movie star. But for that distinction, Perry paid a heavy price -- he is best known as the character of Stepin Fetchit, a befuddled, mumbling, shiftless fool.

Seen through a modern lens, Perry's "laziest man in the world" character can be painfully racist. Perry, a veteran of the vaudeville "Chitlin Circuit," got his break in Hollywood in 1927 when he was cast in the silent film In Old Kentucky. According to film historian Mel Watkins, Perry created the character to make himself stand out from other actors vying for the role.

"He acted as though he didn't know where he was, and he immediately got the attention of the producers and the director of the film," says Watkins, author of the biography Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. "He was chosen for the part on that basis -- they didn't know what to think of him. They were astounded by him."

Watkins says that like most Americans, he thought of Stepin Fetchit as a symbol of the negative side of the African-American experience. But in his research, he discovered Perry to be very different from his Fetchit character. "This is an amazingly complex man. Intelligent -- and he was anything but what people take him to be."

By the mid-1930s, Perry was at his peak -- and black leaders were putting pressure on Hollywood to rid the screen of the stereotype he was responsible for creating. They believed the Stepin Fetchit character was keeping white America from viewing blacks as capable of joining the mainstream.

Comedian Jimmy Walker knows something about being accused of perpetuating a negative stereotype. His portrayal of J.J. Evans in the sitcom Good Times was criticized as a return of the minstrel show.

"The way they make it sound, it's like black people are permanently harmed by Stepin Fetchit," Walker says. "And I don't agree with that -- I don't think it's a bad character. I think it's a funny character." Walker points out that the Fetchit character is actually a subversive trickster -- he never got around to fetching anything.

"The lazy man character that [Perry] played was based on something that had come from slavery," Watkins says. "It was called 'putting on old massa' -- break the tools, break the hoe, do anything to postpone the work that was to be done."

Finally, the white characters would become exasperated and do the work themselves. "And blacks understood it perfectly, and laughed heartily at it," Watkins says. For his part, Perry was laughing all the way to the bank. By the mid-1930s, he was a millionaire with a fleet of luxury cars and expensive suits.

But by the end of the 1930s, Perry's star began to wane. The NAACP was gaining some influence in Hollywood and Perry was in a constant battle with Fox Studios to get equal pay and billing as his white co-stars -- a battle he never won. By 1940, he walked away from Hollywood, and within just a few years he was broke. To the emerging civil rights movement, Perry was a symbol of something black America wanted to forget, and he faded into obscurity.

Watkins found Perry in 1976 in a nursing home, recovering from a stroke. "He wasn't defeated," Watkins says. "Although he was bitter, he was still fighting to reconstruct that image."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Roy Hurst