Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Two Reviews of Mel Watkins' book on Stepin Fetchit

In New York Times "How a Black Entertainer's Shuffle Actually Blazed a Trail"

"At the height of his career, from the late 1920's into the mid-30's, Lincoln Perry soared as Hollywood's first black superstar. His "Laziest Man in the World" shtick, so exquisitely honed that the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote that it was "as stylized as James Joyce," made him an icon everywhere in the world. He effortlessly stole scenes from the finest actors in Hollywood, earning the respect of greats like Charlie Chaplin, Lionel Barrymore and Will Rogers. He owned a dozen chauffeur-driven limousines, served watermelon to white guests at his lavish soirées and caroused with Mae West and Jack Johnson.

You say you've never heard of Lincoln Perry? Try his stage name: Stepin Fetchit.

Long after Perry's performances have faded or been edited from our collective memory, "Stepin Fetchit" lives on as an insult and a mark of shame, like "Uncle Tom." With his sleepy eyes, whining drawl and shuffling feet, Stepin Fetchit was the screen avatar of that hoariest and most loathed of stereotypes, the utterly servile yet totally shiftless Negro. Widely praised as a comic genius during his heyday, Stepin Fetchit is known now only as a race traitor." more.

SEE ALSO: Claudia Pierpoint Roth's New Yorker review of Caryl Phillips Dancing in the Dark a novel that has at its center Bert Williams.

In Bookforum"Pee Wee's Plantation: The Rise and Fall of Black Character Actor Stepin Fetchit" By Gerald Early

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.) more.

In Slate Back in Blackface: The rehabilitation of "Stepin Fetchit." By Armond White

Few pop consumers remember who Stepin Fetchit was. That must mean we've come a long way from the period when mass media trafficked in racist black stereotypes, because Stepin Fetchit was one of the primary purveyors of that iconography. The minstrel-show tradition that lampooned African-Americans (sometimes by white performers in blackface) was kept going by Stepin Fetchit himself, who was black by birth and a race clown by chosen profession. This complicated identity is the subject of Mel Watkins' recent biography Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, an account of the history of the notorious film- and stage performer who shuck-and-jived his way into mid-20th-century American pop consciousness. more.


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