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(Credit: Minneapolis Star)

Film

The problematic career of Stepin Fetchit: The first Black film star

@Russellisation

With white filmmakers and the likes of the racist director D. W. Griffith leading America’s burgeoning movie industry in the 1910s, there was little room for black creatives to express themselves on the silver screen at the dawn of cinema. As gross prejudice still ran rampant throughout the country, black people became the subject of ridicule in American cinema, being mocked in derogatory black-face or stereotyped to the extent of long-term societal damage.

As rich white filmmakers dominated the industry, few black creatives managed to find their way either in front of or behind the camera, with director Oscar Micheaux being an exception to the rule, as well as Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit, who became the first black film star in the 1930s. Rising through the ranks of the industry during a decade that continued to flaunt black-face in popular media, with the likes of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton and Judy Garland each using the barbaric practice, it is disputed whether Perry was a help or hindrance to the depiction of black people in cinema. 

The American vaudevillian, comedian, and film actor was part of the entertainment industry from a young age, fleeing home to join the carnival at the age of 12 where he excelled in singing and tap dancing. Flourishing in his teenage years, Perry became a character actor and the manager of his own travelling show, adopting the stage name Stepin Fetchit as a contraction of ‘step and fetch it’, named after a racehorse he and his partner used to bet on. 

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Gaining fame across America, Perry began appearing in a number of movies including his major debut 1927’s In Old Kentucky, often playing comedic roles in which he began to become known under the nickname of ‘the Laziest Man in the World’. Though he became known under the damaging alias, Perry became the first black actor to receive featured screen credit in a film and made other strives in the industry, making him a contentious figure in the history of black filmmaking. 

Taking a starring role in Hearts in Dixie in 1929, one of the first studio feature films to boast a majority black cast, Perry continued to hit milestones into the 1930s, becoming the first black actor to become a millionaire. Appearing in 44 films between 1927 and 1939, the actor became the first, most significant black film star until he was phased out of popularity as America entered the 1940s. 

Viewed in the context of a burgeoning civil rights movement, the legacy of Perry in the mid-20th-century began to switch, with Black Americans considering his persona to be embarrassing and damaging to their cause. Echoing popular negative stereotypes of the Black community, Perry’s Stepin Fetchit is the caricature that is mocked and criticised by Spike Lee in his 2000 classic, Bamboozled, as the film provides a measured response to such early forms of racism. Perpetuating the lie that black people were ‘lazy’, ‘foolish’ and ‘clumsy’, there’s no doubt that Perry’s character was an archaic depiction of contemporary social values, with his true impact on black cinema being difficult to decipher. 

Having undergone a re-evaluation in recent times, with many considering his character to be a representation of the trickster archetype who fools those around them by purporting to be silly, only to trick and disobey authority. Whether or not this truly stands up in the context of his long-running career is up for debate, as whilst he pioneered the future of black actors on screen, he may have also contributed to their ill-treatment for generations by reinforcing damaging stereotypes that have long-plagued black creatives.

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