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Stepin Fetchit, then and now

John Strausbaugh's reviews of two Stepin Fetchit biographies in the New York Times

Armond White's review of "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry" at Slate.com

Michael Mills' "Midnight Ramble, The Negro in Early Hollywood"

Stepin Fetchit remains one of the most fascinating, infuriating, polarizing, pathetic and perplexing figures in movie history. I've never known quite how to read him. Is he the hoary embodiment of the racist stereotype of the lazy, shuffling Negro? Is he a once-familiar humorous archetype from African-American tradition that people today -- black or white -- just don't know how to interpret or understand anymore?

The truth about him is probably complex enough to accommodate both of these perspectives... and others between and beyond them. And the publication of two new biographies examining Fetchit's life -- his putative pandering and eventual plunge into disrepute -- got me to thinking: What will audiences 70 years from now make of, say, Tyler Perry's broadly caricaturish Madea persona ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman")? Will they still find her funny, or an embarrassing throwback?

Or how about the tiresome parade of movies and television shows these days that continue to traffic in the most crudely drawn stereotypes of blacks as pimps, whores, junkies, drug dealers, street rappers, gangstas, NBA wannabes or some combination of the above? (Does anybody ever need to see another movie about pimps or drug deals? Especially another one that's pretty much like all those other movies about pimps and drug deals? Last time I can remember seeing a compelling pimp character was maybe Harvey Keitel in "Taxi Driver." And why is a pimp character considered any more "sympathetic" or "acceptable" than, say, a slave-trader, when they both do the same thing -- selling somebody's flesh for labor? Pimps are a dime a dozen, but we don't see many "sympathetic" portrayals of down-home guys who sell children or immigrants into various kinds of slavery. What's the difference?)

These racial caricatures are popular cliches today, with American audiences of all races, just as Stepin Fetchit's routines were years ago. But nothing dates faster than "street" fashion.

I wonder, what's the qualitative difference between Fetchit's work and the lowlife posing and commercial gangsta minstrelsy we see acted out in, say, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'"? Or the slumming, faux-blaxploitation "struggle-porn" (as one critic calls it) of "Hustle & Flow," where lines like "Whup that trick" and "It's hard out here for a pimp," are presented -- without 1970s-style exaggeration or irony -- as genuine inspiration for potential lottery-ticket-outta-the-ghetto rap singles? ("Everybody gotta have a dream," the movie says -- and it sure helps if you can sell somebody else's ass to get yours.)

These movies, accomplished as they may be in some respects (and Terrence Howard's performance is much richer than the spraypaint-by-number "Hustle and Flow" deserves), turn into cynical sales-pitches for their own fleeting "street cred," but that's all they are. You don't get the sense anybody has a particular story to tell, or anything to say. They're just churning out safe and routine, crowd-pleasing (or audience-pandering) exploitation movies -- nothing better and nothing worse -- where it's all about the Benjamins and the bling.

What's changed -- if anything? Well, for one thing, back in 1989 when Spike Lee made "Do the Right Thing," his character Mookie was intended as a satirical criticism of young black men who cared about nothing more than "gettin' paid." Is that social critique lost on audiences now, only 16 years later? (See some of Spike Lee's recent comments about such movies here.)

But back to the original Stepin Fetchit: Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry was a comic actor who became rich and famous in Hollywood -- and around the world -- under the name of a character he created in "chitlin' circuit" vaudeville and minstrel shows, which he styled as "The Laziest Man in the World." John Strausbaugh reviewed both Mel Watkins' "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry" and Champ Clark's "Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit" in the New York Times, observing that the Times' antediluvian movie critic, Bosley Crowther, once wrote that Fetchit's performance was "as stylized as James Joyce."

"Widely praised as a comic genius during his heyday, Stepin Fetchit is known now only as a race traitor," writes Strausbaugh, himself the author of a volume about the history of blackface. "Perry/Stepin Fetchit presents an almost perfect case study in the conflicts and dualities that still confront black actors in Hollywood."

It was his enormous success, Mr. Watkins argues, that made Perry the focus of so much condemnation, while hundreds of other black performers, then and now, had gotten away with shucking and jiving their way through more demeaning stereotypes....

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.

But film critic Armond White, who reviewed Watkins' book for Slate.com ("Back in Blackface -- The rehabilitation of Stepin Fetchit") rejects any attempt to revise Fetchit's reputation -- and is equally hard on some of today's top black performers. White writes:


[Fetchit] has been virtually forgotten. Some biographers might see this as rough justice, but not Mel Watkins, who takes his cue from the contemporary range of black pop performers—from Samuel L. Jackson's raging violence to Snoop Dogg's indolent pandering to Chris Rock's black-on-black ridicule. In this new spirit of relaxed embarrassment, Watkins attempts to rehabilitate Stepin Fetchit's reputation.

Watkins starts by dedicating the book to "all of the early twentieth-century black comedians who, under the most repressive conditions, satirized and labored to humanize the nation's distorted image of African Americans." That's Watkins' sly means of shifting your interest past Fetchit and onto the larger conundrum of African-American humor. It's a strategy tailored to hip-hop materialism and the vogue for academic validation of black pop. Moving readers within the politically correct confusion about pride, self-defense, self-deprecation, and self-denigration, Watkins uses tactics almost as slippery as Jackson's, Dogg's, and Rock's....

Stepin Fetchit established the model of the unscrupulous black performer, pursuing money, work, and fame by any means necessary.... Given the contemporary success of black performers and innumerable hip-hop artists who flirt with shameless, disreputable images, Stepin Fetchit's legacy—from popular figure to pariah—takes on new importance. Should African-American performers be accountable to political correctness? To what degree should they worry that their antics shape the self-image of young African-Americans? Should they follow any standard other than their own conscience? Should they have a conscience?

There's much more to be said about Fetchit's comic talents (in the 1930s Robert Benchly dubbed him "the finest actor that the talking movies have yet produced") and his public image. In another review of Watkins' and Clark's books in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont writes:

And yet, typifying the confusion about what Fetchit’s character really meant, some of his broadest (and best) performances were in the independent all-black films that he made in the years when Hollywood would not touch him for fear of offending black audiences. His brief turns in “Miracle in Harlem” (1948) and “Richard’s Reply” (1949) bear out all that he might have achieved in a better world. Fetchit is as delicately calibrated in his physical clowning as Chaplin or Keaton (if as unvarying in his persona as Mae West), and in the context of an all-black society, with other actors portraying shopkeepers and police detectives and well-bred daughters, he implicates no one by his antics except his unique self: a long and sinuous, dreamily unfocussed, narcoleptic moon-calf (“Right now, I’m ’a finish a little nap I started week befo’ last”), a marvel of the human condition rather than of a merely racial one, who today seems a creature of the minstrel shows by way of Samuel Beckett.

Although the burgeoning civil-rights movement had effectively killed Fetchit’s career, the strength that it generated among the black population eventually allowed him to be rediscovered. In 1965, the twenty-three-year-old Muhammad Ali announced that none other than Stepin Fetchit—drawing on a previously unsuspected expertise in boxing—was serving as his “secret strategist”; cynics referred to Fetchit as Ali’s court jester, but the young champion offered him the respect of one great showman for another. Around the same time, a newly intense breed of black comedian, unafraid of the old stereotypes, came to view Fetchit as an invaluable ancestor. Dick Gregory claimed him as a childhood hero, citing—without recourse to hidden meanings or winking tricksters—the plain thrill of seeing a black man on the screen. “To me,” he later said, being mad at Stepin Fetchit “was like being mad at Rosa Parks.”...

And yet both [novelist] Caryl Phillips and Mel Watkins, who are black, relate their interest in their respective subjects to a profound distaste for aspects of black popular culture today. (Champ Clark, who is white—and who was warned by Sidney Poitier, no less, that he would not be capable of writing about Fetchit, whose experiences Poitier says he himself “could not have endured”—steers clear of the territory.) Phillips has talked about “the rise of hip-hop and rap in their more vulgar, misogynistic, homophobic form” as an impetus for his novel [Dancing in the Dark], and about the disturbing qualities of “minstrelsy” among current performers. Watkins concludes his book by arguing that Stepin Fetchit’s public image 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,” despite the fact that these figures, unlike Fetchit, have had many other choices. And he notes that few cultural critics, with the famed exception of Bill Cosby—still campaigning against insulting stereotypes, but now accused of being out of date—have offered a word of protest. As the twenty-first century begins, it appears that the argument about who has the right to represent black America is far from over.

That's just it: Who's out of date -- the purveyors of stereotypes or the critics of them? Although Stepin Fetchit may be thought of as a historical figure now, he still (re-)presents some thorny contemporary paradoxes and taboos. What amazes me is that these two biographies of Stepin Fetchit are the first book-length studies of him ever published.

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