From Publishers Weekly
The name Stepin Fetchit evokes images of an African-American caricature, a lazy, cowering fixture in early films. Watkins, a former New York Times Book Review
editor, details the story behind the stereotype, examining the life and career of actor Lincoln Perry (1902–1985), creator of Stepin Fetchit. Watkins makes a case that the character's "rebellious, folk-inspired subversiveness (avoiding unrewarding labor by pretense and sham) was subverted and, ultimately, perverted." Perry started performing in early 20th-century traveling minstrel shows and was part of the two-man act "Step and Fetch It." By the early 1920s, when he reached Hollywood, he'd gone solo but kept the name. After breaking into films and working with luminaries like Will Rogers, he fought for treatment and salaries similar to his white co-stars. He became a millionaire; Hollywood pegged him as a troublemaker. Furthermore, the black middle class opposed his profligate lifestyle. Once the Civil Rights movement demanded more positive black images in the media, Stepin Fetchit became an embarrassment. Although Perry received a Special Image Award from the NAACP in 1976, his film work is not easily available. Watkins does an excellent job of capturing the distinctive voice of a determined and savvy film pioneer.
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Lincoln Perry's Stepin Fetchit personified the image of a shiftless, lazy, and cowardly Negro, reaching the height of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Watkins suggests that Perry opened the doors for other blacks in white Hollywood. Born at the turn of the twentieth century in the Caribbean, Perry ran away from home to work in minstrel and vaudeville shows in the South. His initial fame and appeal was with black audiences. But major success came in Hollywood, where he made more than 40 movies from 1927 to 1948 and became the first black millionaire actor. Perry's very presence on the big screen fed hope to black Americans, and many saw in Perry's apparent acquiescence a hidden message of survival and rebellion. Yet, in the post-World War II period, with the rise of the civil-rights movement, the Fetchit character was almost universally condemned. Watkins maintains that Perry was truly an enigma who fought to improve conditions for blacks in the film industry and created a near-surreal persona whose presence speaks volumes about American race relations. Vernon FordCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved