STEPIN FETCHIT Biographer defends role of black film actor
Perry opened doors for other black actors, the author says.
By REBECCA SLOAN
In the early days of Hollywood, black actor Lincoln Perry earned fame and fortune by portraying lazy, ignorant characters that epitomized the negative "Uncle Tom" stereotype of the era.
Best known by his stage name, Stepin Fetchit, Perry appeared in more than 40 movies, and during the height of his career in the 1920s and '30s, grossed millions.
Today, few are familiar with Perry or his films, and those who are often label his work as a hindrance to the advancement of people of color.
Not so, argues author and former Youngstown resident Mel Watkins in his recently released biography titled "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry."
Though Watkins agrees hands down that Perry's roles were demeaning and insulting to blacks, he is quick to counter that during Hollywood's early years, American moviegoers were not ready or willing to view blacks as anything more than shiftless, grinning buffoons.
Few jobs available
"[Perry] was not allowed to play any other parts, and there weren't a lot of parts for blacks to begin with. Many black film roles in those days were played by white people in black face," Watkins explained.
"[Perry's] roles were a reflection of what America was at that time, of the awful way whites viewed African-Americans."
Watkins thinks that although Perry's work may seem "deplorable and obscene" by modern standards, it is unjust to conclude that Perry didn't pave the way for other black actors.
"He played major roles in major films and was the first black movie star. He opened doors for other black actors," Watkins said.
Years of research
Watkins devoted three years to writing and researching the Perry biography, often passing long hours at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, both offshoots of New York City's Public Library.
The biography testifies to his meticulous research, carrying readers from Perry's humble beginnings in Key West, Fla., to his time on the vaudeville circuit, to his rise in Hollywood and to his decline into bankruptcy and obscurity.
Watkins said he was inspired to write about Perry after working on another book about black performers titled "On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy."
"While I was working on that book, [Perry] stood out as one of the ones who seemed most interesting. I was appalled at the way we had dismissed him. No other books had been written about him, and many of his films weren't viewed because he became known as such a deplorable image for black advancement," Watkins said.
Perry's ugly image as a "race traitor" was appeased somewhat in 1976 when the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP honored him with its Special Image Award, but even that couldn't entirely quell the controversy surrounding him.
Compared with today's artists
Watkins said some still believe that Perry's work did nothing but fuel negative stereotypes and that his image was just as harmful for blacks as today's unfortunate portrayals by vulgar comedians or "gangsta" rappers.
"The difference is that Stepin Fetchit had to play dumb and do what he did to break through. He had no choice. Today's artists do," Watkins said.
Critics are taking notice of Watkins' views.
A PBS documentary about Perry is in the works, and there's talk in Hollywood of a movie about Perry's life.
Watkins said he is thrilled by the attention the book is receiving. One of his goals is to reach a young black audience.
"One way of getting young people interested in the history of our country is to write about entertainment figures because entertainment is something young people are interested in," Watkins said.
A lover of history, the arts and culture, Watkins has written six previous books.
He has also written books on African-American humor and African art and even a memoir of growing up in Youngstown titled "Dancing With Strangers."
"I was born in Memphis, but my family moved to Youngstown when I was just 6 months old, so I grew up there," Watkins said.
Watkins graduated from South High School, where he played basketball, and after leaving Youngstown in the 1960s, attended Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., where he received a master's in history and philosophy.
After college, he got a job as a writer and book editor for The New York Times Sunday Book Review. He now lives in Manhattan but still has family in Youngstown.
"My parents died a few years ago, but my two sisters still live in Youngstown," Watkins said. "I also have ties at the university."
In 2002, Watkins spent a week at Youngstown State University when his book "Dancing with Strangers," a Literary Guild Selection, was chosen for the university's Freshman Readers Dialogue.
XStepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, by Mel Watkins, Pantheon Books, $26.95.