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Black humor: Stepin Fetchit to Richard Pryorto Tyler Perry (Part II)

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Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, 1902 -1985

"We need to examine the history of blacks in film to appreciate their deep roots.... Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, the top comedy stars of the 80s, have a strange, subversive ancestor in Stepin Fetchit, America's first black millionaire actor." -- Richard Corliss, Time, "The 25 Most Important Films on Race"

See: "Stepin Fetchit to Denzel Washington (Part I )"

"Stepin Fetchit, then and now" by Jim Emerson (2005)

* * *

The day Clarence Thomas was nominated by George H.W. Bush for the Supreme Court, I was interviewing 23-year-old writer-director John Singleton about his upcoming movie "Boyz N the Hood" (1991). Singleton was sitting in front of a hotel-room TV tuned to CNN and the first words out of his mouth were: "He's the biggest Uncle Tom."

That memory came back again recently as I was reading Harvard Law Professor and Supreme Court bar member Randall Kennedy's book, "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal." [1] Kennedy writes:

Sometimes "Uncle Tom" is used interchangeably with "sellout." In a Washington Post profile of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, two journalists write that "Uncle Tom is among the most searing insults a black American can hurl at a member of his own race." They describe "Uncle Tom" as a "synonym for sellout, someone subservient to whites at the expense of his own people."

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How to Act Black: "Black Acting School" from "Hollywood Shuffle" (see clip below).

This usage is ironic. The original Uncle Tom -- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom -- was a character who chose death at the hand of his notorious owner, Simon Legree, rather than reveal the whereabouts of runaway slaves. Still there are those who use "Uncle Tom" to refer to any black whose actions, in their view, retard African-American advancement. Others are more discriminating. For many of them, the label "sellout" is more damning than "Uncle Tom" or kindred epithets -- "Aunt Thomasina," "Oreo," "snowflake," "handkerchief head," "white man's Negro," "Stepin Fetchit"....

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The late Richard Pryor, All-African-American. Negative criticism of Pryor is usually limited to his acceptance of inferior material.

Of course, all those terms aren't synonymous, either. The name of Stepin Fetchit is nearly as well-known, and almost synonymous with "Uncle Tom" -- and that, too, may be somewhat ironic. Fetchit (born Lincoln Perry, 1902-1985) was a tremendously popular movie star with black and white audiences. But his act, on stage and screen, was also vilified for perpetuating a stereotype of African-American men as lazy, shuffling, bowing and scraping buffoon. (Other stereotypes of black men as pimps, gangstas, rapists, con artists, drug pushers/addicts, violent criminals, woman-abusers would come from elsewhere, and long outlive him.) He was admired and in many ways emulated by Muhammad Ali, with whom he converted to the Nation of Islam, and he was honored with an NAACP Image Award in 1976.

But how many people today have actually seen him in a movie?

Richard Corliss cites one of Fetchit's best films, John Ford's "Judge Priest" (1934) with Will Rogers, in his list of "The 25 Most Important Films on Race":

... Fetchit (born Lincoln Perry) was an embarrassment to many blacks, both then and especially later in the dawning of the civil rights movement. The lazy befuddlement of his characters seemed to represent the most contemptuous caricature of the race.

I don't deny that. And I'm not rationalizing the racial gaucheries of his movies by saying, well, that was a long time ago. But anyone looking at Fetchit's performances today has to notice their subversive, anarchic, movie-altering force. His drawn-out drawl and living-dead pace instantly stopped any scene in its tracks, brought the pace to a halt and monopolized the screen. When Fetchit was on, you watched him, because his acting style was unique. The rest of the players were striving for movie naturalism, and he, with a turtle's intensity, was doing Kabuki.

Less than three years ago, two biographies of Stepin Fetchit appeared -- the first book-length studies of this Hollywood pioneer ever published: Mel Watkins' "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry" and Champ Clark's "Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit." In a New York Times review of both volumes ("How a Black Entertainer's Shuffle Actually Blazed a Trail"), John Strausbaugh wrote:

Perry went to his grave bitterly insisting that he deserved better, that he was more a trailblazer than a race traitor, and both Mr. Watkins and Mr. Clark agree.... "It could easily be argued," [Watkins] writes, "that the comic image Lincoln Perry projected was not nearly as harmful, deleterious and degrading as the images projected by many of today's black comedians, rap artists and even television sitcom stars."

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"Madea's Family Reunion" (2002) -- also on Corliss's list.

Mr. Clark persuasively contends that Perry's Stepin Fetchit was a sly trickster, following a centuries-old subversive tradition whereby blacks played the fool to fool whites. He notes how often Stepin Fetchit, by pretending to be too lazy and addled to understand the simplest directions, avoids doing the white characters' work, all the while muttering subtle sarcasms in a drawl that was indecipherable to whites but clear and hilarious to black audiences.

African-American "political correctness" has long cut in several directions, and the fundamental questions have always been the same: "What is 'blackness,' and what are the permissible ways of expressing racial, generational, educational, socio-economic differences in American society?" We're probing and inquiring as deeply as ever. Here we are in 2008, Barak Obama (son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother) is running for President of the United States, and some people are wondering if he can't win because he's part African, or because he's "not black enough" -- because he's Harvard-educated, wealthy, "only half black" (most people don't use the terms "mulatto," "quadroon" or "octoroon" to measure proportions of ancestral blood anymore), or even because his father was from East Africa rather than from West Africa, where most American slaves came from.

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Poster for Douglas Sirk's version of "Imitation of Life" (1959).

Movies by and about African-Americans have dealt with issues of intraracial division for a long time, whether it's the melodrama of the "tragic mulatto," caught between two worlds but able to "pass," as "Pinky" (Elia Kazan, 1949) or "Imitation of Life" (1934, and again in 1959), or "keepin' it real" comedies that both indulge and make fun of the prevailing racial stereotypes of their time. Tyler Perry (no relation to Lincoln that I know of) has become enormously successful playing, and writing (screen-)plays for, a large black woman named Madea ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman," "Madea's Family Reunion") who is beloved, sometimes nostalgically, by some as a traditional family figure, and derided by others as a racial and sexual caricature. Similar criticisms have been made of Eddie Murphy's portrayal of Rasputia in "Norbit" -- a movie that grossed more than $95 million at the domestic box office, and which black critic Armond White cited as one of 2007's best movies: "Murphy responds to post-Dave Chappelle self-insult comedy with a better, more experienced sense of self-awareness (that is, self respect)."

In a 1979 Alicia Patterson Foundation project, ("Black Humor from Stepin Fetchit to Richard Pryor"), Fetchit biographer Watkins writes:

Perhaps the most apt way to describe the ">public humor of black Americans prior to the mid-1930's is to say that it was nearly always masked. Not only in the literal sense of grotesque, corked on blackface facades in the minstrel shows that took the United States by storm in the early 1800's, but also figuratively and psychologically. [...]

Many of the strutting, prancing steps performed by slaves and greeted with such hearty laughter from whites were intended as satiric commentary on the highfalutin' airs, pretensions and gullibility of their masters. [...]

As black [slaves] learned to communicate verbally in a type of Pidgin English the pattern was strengthened.... At the same time, because of their oddity and incomprehensibility for most whites, these rhetorical devices were considered amusing. They too became part of early black humor, even as they abetted the stereotype of the illiterate, fun-loving black in white America. [...]

Watkins appreciates the complexity of many forms of African-American humor including the use of dialect and vernacular [2], insult comedy ("the dozens"), call and response, attitude and nuance that stretches from Stepin Fetchit, to Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor, to Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.

WARNING: R-rated Acting Language in above clip!

The "Black Acting School" sketch from Robert Townsend's 1987 "Hollywood Shuffle" (see Odienator's "Black History Mumf appreciation, "There's Always Work at the Post Office") is a prime example of of humor that cuts several ways at once. It mocks the history of African-American movie stereotypes from shufflin' slaves (Townsend does a Stepin Fetchit impression) to jivin' street thugs (and connects them in the process), and features white teachers instructing black and white actors how to "act black." The commercial spokesman is Robert Taylor, a Black Actor who doesn't present himself as African or American: He speaks in an upper-crust British accent. (In the words of Master Thespian: "That's acting!") Odienator writes: "Like 'Sweet Sweetback' and 'She's Gotta Have It," 'Hollywood Shuffle' is a meta-hustle -- a movie about one's hustling made by the director's hustling."

While "Hollywood Shuffle" has its share of funny punch lines (it's sketch comedy, after all), it's also a good example of a comedy that derives its humor from attitudes more than jokes. One of the funniest and most-quoted lines -- "I ain't be got no weapon!," delivered by a black actor in the blaxploitation picture "Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge -- isn't a witticism. It's a grammatical errror. What makes it funny is Townsend's overtaxed delivery in the context of shooting this "black" movie so inauthentic and improbable that the makers can't even get the stereotypes right. (All language has rules, and as far as I know, "got be" conforms to no existing form of grammar. Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times aptly called it "Dada Ebonics.")

Watkins touches on this In a piece called "Writing in Black and White." He interviews several 1970s television writers to explore:

... the conflict between black humor and the formalized comedy approach that dominates most television writing. Bob Peete, a black writer who worked on "The Bill Cosby Show" and was story editor for "Good Times" for several years, expressed it this way: "There is a real difference between black humor and white humor. The chief distinction is that black humor is more attitudinal; it's not what one says, but how one says it.

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Redd Foxx: "Blue" comedian and star of the sitcom "Sanford and Son."

An example is, say, if Redd Foxx is on camera and someone knocks on the door. Redd might say, 'Come in,' and the audience would crack up. Now 'come in' is obviously not a joke. The attitude he imparts to the line gets the laugh. Richard Pryor does the same thing; he doesn't tell jokes. White humor is structured to a straight-line, punch-line format. And television has become a medium of one-liners. One of the problems for a lot of black writers -- at least in the scripts I read while working with 'Good Times' -- was that they could not effectively write one-liners. They could write lines that, in their heads, they could imagine the performer delivering with a certain attitude. But on paper it doesn't translate, especially to somebody white who is expecting the one-liners. They simply don't see the humor. Then the white producer will say, 'Well, this guy isn't funny. He can't write.' What they're talking about is that the black writer is not writing what they are used to reading. It's not their conception of humor." [2]

In the same piece, Matt Robinson, a black writer, producer and script consultant ("Sanford and Son," "The Waltons," "Eight is Enough," "The Cosby Show") gives this example:

Black humor, to me, is that stage show type humor that flowed from specific character types and situations that were familiar to other blacks -- almost exclusively so. It wasn't dependent on rapid-fire joke telling. Pigmeat Markham, for instance, did that bit that dealt with a woman who comes into the courtroom and accuses a man of 'messin' with her digits.' Now it was never explained what digits were, but the moment she mentioned it Pigmeat became outraged and yelled, 'He was!' The audience went crazy. Not because it was funny in the setup- setup- punch line manner, but because of Pigmeat's attitude. I mean, nobody even knew what digits were, that could've meant anything: money, the numbers or policy game; it even had sexual overtones. Still, it was hilarious."

What's "funny" is deeply personal, but it's also innately cultural and political. Comedies like "Hollywood Shuffle," "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze" (with its conflicts between light- and dark-skinned college students, and, in a memorable musical number, "Straight vs. Nappy" hair), "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Norbit" have been criticized as offensive and politically incorrect by some and greeted as hilarious by others. Questions of comedic taste aside, is it possible any of them will ever become politically unwatchable, as Fetchit's movies are now (his scenes have even been excised from some television prints), to the point where they simply can't -- or won't, or shouldn't -- be seen any longer?

See: "From Stepin Fetchit to Denzel Washington (Part I )"

More in Part III, Black Drama: Paul Robeson to Sidney Poitier to Denzel Washington

- - - -

[1] Kennedy actually attempts a (partially successful) defense of Clarence Thomas, the most convincing portion of which (for me) is not about whether Thomas is a "sellout," but why his arguments don't pass Constitutional muster: "Instead of denouncing Thomas's objection to affirmative action on grounds of racial disloyalty, personal ingratitude, or hypocrisy, proponents of affirmative action should explain how, on legal and moral grounds, he is wrong."

[2] Watkins repeatedly cites the influential book "Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America'" (1977; revised 1986) by Geneva Smitherman.

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