There’s a letter from Stepin Fetchit in the John Ford papers at the Lilly Library. It’s handwritten, articulate, dignified, very desperate. He’s not asking for a handout, he’s asking for a job. The letter dates from the early 1950’s, when the shiftless, shuffling part that Stepin Fetchit played had become not merely outmoded, but incendiary. As a result, nobody would hire him.
Ford being Ford—that is to say, innately contrary and not really giving much of a damn about what anybody else thought—he found something for Fetchit in The Sun Shines Bright (1953) and has been more or less slagged for it ever since.
Mel Watkins doesn’t seem to know about that letter; certainly, he doesn’t refer to it or quote from it in his new biography. One would have thought that the Ford papers would have been an obvious place to look for material about a man who left behind few primary documents—after all, Fetchit appeared in several key Ford films, among them Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), as well as a perfectly terrible film called The World Moves On (1934).
In the same incremental way that John Wayne came to positively incarnate the way America chooses to see itself, so Stepin Fetchit became a negative symbol—for both black and white—of the way white America treated blacks: as groveling menials.
He was thus cast into—pardon the expression—outer darkness by the time of World War II, a one-trick pony whose trick got old and who couldn’t co-exist with the prideful figures played by the unjustly forgotten James Edwards and the justly beloved Sidney Poitier. Fetchit—born Lincoln Perry in Key West in 1902—lived a chaotic, itinerant life, full of bankruptcies, lawsuits and women. The problems of his life are replicated in his biography. Mr. Watkins is hard-pressed to assign a meaning or overarching theme to his subject; he has enough trouble just keeping track of things. Fetchit’s son, for example, disappears from the narrative completely; if Mr. Watkins was unable to track him, he should have said so.
Fetchit, or, rather, Lincoln Perry, had an admirable pride in his craft—“If I am a good actor, I want the respect and recognition that is given to good actors,” he said in 1930—but he wasn’t particularly likeable; there were a lot of dustups with the studios, not over the character he played, but over money and his inability to keep his name out of the papers.
Basically, the book is a clip job, which is understandable (everybody’s dead). But Mr. Watkins can’t make the clips come alive, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to know which clips to emphasize, let alone trust. He ascribes the same weight to interviews in a studio-controlled magazine like Photoplay as he does to Fetchit’s own columns, written for black newspapers of the period, where Fetchit emerges as an earnest, hardworking, somewhat irritatingly pious vaudevillian.
The core problem with trying to appreciate Fetchit is that he seamlessly inhabited a racist archetype, in the last minute before it became an historical impossibility. Yes, he was funny, and once or twice he was more than that—as in Judge Priest, when he unwittingly tempts Will Rogers’ Billy Priest to abandon his judicial job and go fishing. Ford dissolves to Fetchit and Rogers trudging happily along a riverbank, fishing poles in hand, a middle-aged, cross-racial Huck and Tom bonded by shared irresponsibility.
But there’s something very specifically offensive about the Fetchit character. Eddie (Rochester) Anderson played a servant, but Jack Benny and Anderson always made sure that Benny was the butt of the joke, never Rochester. Likewise, Hattie McDaniel played Mammy, but she also got to flirt openly with Clark Gable, which ought to get her at least a partial pass from posterity.
The laughter occasioned by Stepin Fetchit has a way of clutching up in your throat, because we can’t see him clearly—the associations are too overwhelming. Mr. Watkins assigns him the positive role of Br’er Rabbit, Joel Chandler Harris’ trickster who turned the white man’s expectations back on him so that he could get his way, but that feels like an imposed conceit; onscreen, Fetchit never exhibited sufficient guile, let alone energy, to hoodwink anybody. Utter uselessness was the comic point of his character.
This biography is valuable for the way in which it draws parallels between the high-minded black attitude toward negative stereotypes of Fetchit’s own period and the altered attitudes of today, with music that glorifies the pimp and the gangbanger and recent movies like Barbershop and Soul Plane—which probably would have cast Fetchit had he been available. Mr. Watkins ascribes this (correctly, I think) not just to a generational difference but to the divisions between blue-collar and middle-class blacks:
“[The] caricatures of the black underclass had some basis in reality but [middle-class blacks] felt that excess focus on the lowest stratum of Negro life obscured the progress made by black professionals; they argued that suppressing those crude, comically exaggerated images was essential to uplifting the race and gaining respectability in the larger society.”
With the simultaneous ascendance of thug culture, representing the masculine aggression of blue-collar blacks, and Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell satisfying middle-class aspirations, American blacks have ascended into the cultural mainstream from above and below.
In a sense, it’s the culmination of something Fetchit prophesied: “The way I believe the race problem is going to be solved is not by figures or oratory but one of these days we are going to wake up and find ourselves at the top and we won’t know how we got there.”
He may have played stupid, but he wasn’t.
Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon and Schuster) was published earlier this year.