Monday, August 31, 2015

Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry by Mel Watkins

Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry
by Mel Watkins
Vintage/Pantheon
Originally published 2005
Paperback - 978140096763
368 pages

Powell's
IndieBound
Barnes and Noble

How should we approach talking about Stepin Fetchit? Carefully. Very carefully.

Actor Lincoln Perry, also known by his show business name Stepin Fetchit, has one of the most complicated legacies in the history of movies. Perry’s early history is a common one. He escapes a poor upbringing to find wealth and success in Hollywood. However Perry’s circumstances were much more complicated. He was African American and his film roles were of stereotypical black caricatures. These performances were problematic yet accepted in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Today they are completely unacceptable and difficult to watch. In early Hollywood, black actors and actresses were often relegated to roles of maids and servants. The comedic roles actors like Perry performed involved black characters who were sleepy, dumb, shiftless and easily spooked. While actresses like Hatti McDaniel and Louise Beavers were able to fight for better representation in film they still had to work within the confines of the system. The author makes the case that they played maids but they played sassier maids. Perry’s sleepy eyed Stepin Fetchit couldn’t transcend its caricature.


Actor Lincoln Perry, aka Stepin Fetchit


Perry excelled in comedy and his talents skyrocketed him to fame and fortune. He made a big splash on stage and screen, was highly sought after by the industry, was written about frequently in newspapers and industry magazines and even had his own column in the Chicago Defender simply called Lincoln Perry’s Letter. He would have been a much more prolific actor in film however he became notoriously difficult to work with and scandals plagued him. By the 1950s he was much less in demand and by the Civil Rights movement and into the late 1970s he was looked upon as a pariah. Perry fought back claiming that his career opened doors for actors like Sidney Poitier. However by the time he died in 1985 he was no longer a major figure in the African American show business community and today he is largely forgotten.

Lincoln Perry with his friend Muhammad Ali


I’m not qualified to discuss the portrayal of African Americans in early film. However, author and critic Mel Watkins is and he does a fine job in this book. The reader learns a lot about Perry’s career in film and stage, his family and his romantic relationships. The subtitle suits the book perfectly: “The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry”. Not only do we learn about Perry’s life but he also learn a lot about the time in which his career both flourished and failed. Watkins discusses many other African American entertainers at length most notably Clarence Muse, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Willie Best, Flip Wilson and Bill Robinson.

This book isn’t perfect. Sometimes the writing gets pretty dull. Although I was very interested in the book, I slogged through it and it took me much longer to read than it should have. Personally I’ve been going through a difficult time so my attention span wasn’t at full capacity and you need it for this book. There are lots of details and Perry was up to a lot of shenanigans, all of which are meticulously recounted in the book. If an author was going to write a book about the problems of early African American film roles, Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit would be the perfect figure to anchor the story.

I recommend this book to classic film buffs who are looking to expand their knowledge about lesser known stars and also want to learn more about race in early film history.

This is my third review for my summer reading challenge. I purchased this book directly through Random House.


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