Stepin Fetchit

(c. 1902—1985)

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(c. 1902–1985), actor.

His name now nearly synonymous with slow-witted, shuffling servility, Stepin Fetchit was a talented comic actor and the first African American movie star. Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry in Key West, Florida, Fetchit was by 1914 performing in stage revues and vaudeville shows, largely for African American audiences. Fetchit's early work in Hollywood as a lazy, whining clown in films such as In Old Kentucky (1927) and Salute (1929) got him noticed, but it was Hearts in Dixie (1929), an all-black talking picture, that first highlighted his comic gifts. Bald, lanky, and shambling, Fetchit sometimes transcended his persona's stereotypical outlines through impeccable timing and projection of personality. Crafted in African American settings, Fetchit's character was not served well by the white contexts of the movies that made him an international star. He is little more than comic relief in films such as John Ford's The World Moves On (1934), the Shirley Temple vehicle Stand Up and Cheer (1934), and Helldorado (1935); he is whipping-boy and lackey to Will Rogers in David Harum (1934), The County Chairman (1935), and Ford's Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935); he is downright foolish in Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935). Yet even in the harshest surroundings Fetchit armors himself with a detachment that seems almost wise. His great success pointed the way toward more substantial African American film roles, and his legendary off-screen high life (including spending binges, car accidents, and brawls) only increased his allure. By the end of the 1930s, Fetchit's recklessness and the criticism of civil rights groups brought his stardom to an end; he appeared on film only occasionally in the following decades. In the late 1960s Fetchit was a member of Muhammad Ali's entourage and in 1968 filed a lawsuit against CBS for broadcasting a documentary that villainized him, the man who opened Hollywood's doors to African Americans.

Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, 1973.Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942, 1977.

—Eric Lott

Subjects: Literature.

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