STEPIN FETCHIT (1902 - 1985)
The story of the black comedic film actor Stepin Fetchit became one of the most divisive tales to unfold in the entertainment business during the 20th century. He rose to fame as film evolved from silent to talkie and made a whirlwind twenty-odd-year run that would make most careers pale in comparison. For the reoccuring role that he played as the typecast post-Civil War African American, he was labeled as a sell-out as his race struggled for equality. Others viewed him in a different light and made for great arguments in his defense because you see it turns out that the laziest man in the world may have just been one of the smartest men in the world.
FILM ::: ACTOR :::
He was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, the son of a seamstress and a cigar maker of West Indian descent, in the sub-tropical paradise of Key West, Florida. The Perry family began migrating north in Lincoln's early teens and he got out while the getting was good running away to join a traveling carnival. He learned to tap dance and sing his way to Vaudeville. Legend has it that he took on the stage name "stepin fetchit" as a salute to the name of a horse that won him $30.
During his golden era, Perry shared the screen with Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Bill Mr Bojangles Robinson and Charlie Chan. He lived the life of a superstar with women, a fleet of cars, male servants and more 'til it all went south thanks to the overextravagant lifestyle that claimed the fortunes of entertainers from Mike Tyson to MC Hammer. In Hollywood, he had power on the street and had carte blanche with the LAPD. His penchant for drunken brawls and teenage girls came to screeching halt in 1947 when Stepin Fetchit declared personal bankruptcy.
Black pride began to finally gain traction in mid-20th century America. The Amos 'n Andy Show was cancelled in 1951 under protest for propagating racism. Things only got worse when Stepin found himself in the crosshairs of the NAACP who frowned upon the Fetchit persona and they competently gutted his legacy. Scenes began being edited out of the films that he had appeared in. They said he was an Uncle Tom - that he had sold out his people by perpetuating the worse of all black stereotypes. When all the hootin' and hollerin' died down, a different picture began to emerge. The question needed to be asked, "Was that really what Stepin Fetchit was all about?"
Truth is, Stepin Fetchit was nobody's fool. He was wickedly smart and astute. Amongst other talents, he was a contributing writer to one of the country's most politically important black publications, The Chicago Defender.
The Signifying Monkey Defense
Stepin Fetchit was a trickster. A trickster is even cooler than a jester. The trickster resides in a million evolutions and configurations of the massa/slave relationship and it has weaved itself from the days of slavery on to this very day. It is the art of cleverly manipulated word choice and actions guaranteed to befuddle and drive the Massa mad. It a survival tactic. Keep your enemies close. From talks of bucks and coons and uncles named Tom and Remus and superspades Shaft and Superfly all to the OGs who represent the face of rap. Stepin was perhaps misjudged because white audiences took the whole schtick hook, line and sinker much to the chargin of the black population at whole.
This folklore hero, the Signifying Monkey, was hatched as a mash up of Native American and African American hoodoo. The way the story works is that a lion (the oppressor) and a monkey (the oppressee) stand off in the jungle and the lion is outwitted by the hijinx of the monkey without even realizing it.
After returning to Vaudeville he arrived on the shores of the 1960s as a charity case. He coverted to Islam and cavorted with Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X who each offered him friendship and shelter.
Perry was skewered in 1968 an Andy Rooney penned documentary Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed for which he sued unsuccefully for defamation.
In one of his last two roles he was featured in a small part in chitlin' circuit queen Moms Mabley's Amazing Grace In one scene, Mabley and Slappy White actually step on a poster of Stephin Fetchit creating a symbolic, cathartic moment - the dawn of a new era.
He suffered a major stroke in 1976 shortly after making a cameo appearance in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood that effectively ended his acting career. He recieved a better late than never NAACP Special Image Award the same year.
His story became the subject matter of two books in 2006.