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Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry Hardcover – October 18, 2005

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (October 18, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375423826
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375423826
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #274,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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 Ford
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Customer Reviews

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See all 14 customer reviews
That made us laugh.
This book was well researched, and provides an entertaining and enlightening insight into an era that could not exist since the civil rights movement of the 60's.
Stuart Angert
Interesting bio...good read...lots of research...seems accurate.
Valley of the Sun

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Chances are you don't know who Lincoln Perry is, and chances are you do know who Stepin Fetchit is, even though you may never have seen any of Fetchit's movies. Fetchit was Perry's stage persona, famous for playing the "shiftless darky," the slow-talking, drowsy shuffler that was the comic bane of his white masters. Perry was as full of contradictions as the character he portrayed, and both get a full biography in _Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry_ (Pantheon) by Mel Watkins. Watkins has previously written a history of African American comedy, and so is well acquainted with Fetchit, his fellow performers, and the social changes of the twentieth century that led to the changes in feeling about Fetchit's screen character. This biography is not just about the man and character, but about a particular aspect of twentieth century American race relations.

Perry was born in 1902 in Key West, Florida, and followed his father into performing, working tent shows, carnivals, and eventually vaudeville. Movies were not a career that black performers considered at the time, because if depicted, blacks were played by whites in blackface. Perry may have taken a job as a porter at MGM, and in 1927 he acted in _In Old Kentucky_, his first film appearance, one which got him some critical notice. Perry did not invent Fetchit's "torpid physical presence and halting, meandering speech," but he performed the role with meticulous attention and timing. When onstage before an audience, a key part of his act (it sounds like the sort of transformation for which Andy Kaufman was famous) was to come meandering out, looking lost and confused, and start a whining, incoherent monologue.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Carolyn J. Watson on November 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
A Fascinating Character"

I'd heard the term "Stepin Fetchit," but I didn't know that there was a real person (Lincoln Perry) or movie star who used the name. So when a friend suggested I read this book I was leery. But after a few pages I was caught up in the times and in Perry's struggle to break into films and establish himself as a star. What surprised me most is that he was apparently an intelligent, gifted performer who was nothing like our picture of the "Uncle Tom" that the name is associated with. Who knew that Perry wrote for the Chicago Defender, fought for higher pay and better roles for black actors, hung out with the heavyweight champ Jack Johnson as well as Muhammad Ali, and, for years, lived such a lavish life in Hollywood. Watkins gives us a rich, detailed account of this complex, talented black comic actor. And when one reads about the racial restrictions and circumstances of black actors in the 1920s and 30s, the reasons for his being cast in the cartoonish movie roles he played become clear. He was a man before his time. I finished the book thinking that Perry, with his ambition and outrageous knack for publicity and self-promotion, could have been a star today. It seems that Perry had more flair and attitude than many of today's biggest stars.

This is an entertaining, eye-opening book - a great read. I recommend it for anyone interested in entertainment history or the bumpy road that black actors had to travel to become accepted in Hollywood, and for everyone who wants to be introduced to one of the most fascinating characters I've ever read about. Lincoln Perry's achievements need to be reevaluated and "Stepin Fetchit" definitely deserves * * * * * Five Stars.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Ria on March 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Lincoln Perry, the man the world came to know as Stepin Fetchit, was a complex man. After reading this book, I realize I have childhood memories of seeing Fetchit in films on television. I also remember some of his imitators. Mel Watkins brought to mind cartoons like "Who Killed Cock Robin?" where a Stepin Fetchit type character was being beaten by the police. I asked my sister to quote our deceased mother using the title of this book. She said, "Stop acting like Stepin Fetchit." That made us laugh. But I also remember being taught by my elders who were the great grandchildren of ex-slaves, the subtle form of "playing dumb" to avoid being oppressed by the oppressor. Unfortunately, when "the oppressor" saw Stepin Fetchit movies, he didn't get the joke because it was at his expense. Therefore, forward thinking black people had to cringe watching some of movies movies in mixed company because they knew that this comedians "act" was being accepted as typical black man behavior. Mel Watkins did a fantastic job of explaining Lincoln Perry and the time in which he lived.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ms. 90 on June 27, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The first maybe six or seven chapters of this book were really tedious for me as they really didn't seem to delve into the life of Mr. Perry as much as they explored the "times" of Mr. Perry. It wasn't until around chapter 8 or so that I was able to enjoy the book as it went into more detail about Mr. Perry's life in and out of show-biz. Mr. Perry was a character, to say the least. Flamboyant with his riches and fame, but seemingly not so smart about his future. I just don't understand why some don't see just how much of a contribution Mr. Perry made to the world of Black cinema. Yes, he perfected the character of a slow-footed, shuffling, mealy mouth, but had he not made those enroads in film, would there be the Poitiers and Washingtons of today? I wish that there was some way to actually view In Old Kentucky and Hearts in Dixie so I can actually see the character Mr. Perry created and watch as his talents were displayed. Given the times that Mr. Perry and others of his generation had to work within, I'd say that he did what he had to do. Watkins does a fine job of providing us with a fact-based and well-documented glimpse into the life and times of Mr. Perry.
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