When the controversial actor Stepin Fetchit died in 1985 at the age of 83, the man whose slow-talking, sleepy-eyed, shuffling buffoonery made him Hollywood's first black...

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“Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry”
by Mel Watkins
Pantheon, 352 pp., $26.95

When the controversial actor Stepin Fetchit died in 1985 at the age of 83, the man whose slow-talking, sleepy-eyed, shuffling buffoonery made him Hollywood’s first black movie star was an outcast among his own people, a discredit to his race in the opinion of many.

But in “Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry,” Mel Watkins, a former editor and writer for The New York Times Book Review, largely succeeds in reassessing Fetchit’s tumultuous life.

Born Lincoln Perry in Key West, Fla., in 1902, the son of West Indian immigrants, Fetchit’s road to stardom began in his teens.

Like so many black and even white entertainers in the 1910s and ’20s, he paid his dues in vaudeville shows. Step ‘n’ Fetchit was a two-man act before Perry finally took possession of the name.

By the late 1920s, which saw a peak in interest for African-American performing arts and literature, Fetchit had moved to Los Angeles and joined the city’s burgeoning black film community, based on happening Central Avenue. Two of his earliest films were “In Old Kentucky” and “Hearts In Dixie,” both full of Southern nostalgia.

With a country-boy wit, a confused disposition, a pretend aversion to labor and a habit of breaking into sophisticated dance routines, Fetchit was a hit among white audiences, who saw in him confirmation of their stereotypes about black men.

At the height of his career in the mid-’30s, Fetchit earned upward of $2,500 a week under contract with Fox studio, while many of his peers were lucky to make a 10th of that amount. He got work and he had clout, though he often squandered it.

The black press often praised his acting but criticized his excessive materialism and scandalous personal life.

This ambivalence dogged Fetchit his entire life. On one hand, it was generally accepted that his clout with studio executives opened doors for other black actors in Hollywood. Black film stars, such as Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, not only worked with him in movies but owed some of their own good career fortune to Fetchit’s popularity in Hollywood.

On the other hand, Fetchit’s playboy lifestyle, tardiness to the set and run-ins with the law made him something of a nuisance. His career also faced a changing social and political climate in the black community, which was losing its tolerance for media images that portrayed African Americans as subservient, ever-happy “darkies.”

Despite his appeal, Fetchit faced the same limits every other black entertainer had to grapple with in Hollywood: If they wanted to appear in films, they’d have to play servants and offer comic relief. Black characters weren’t just jokesters; they were the joke.

Watkins shows how Fetchit, even as he campaigned for better roles and more money, may have exploited Hollywood’s eagerness to depict black stereotypes to gain influence in the industry.

But it appears he led a completely different intellectual life. He was articulate and rather proud of his blackness.

“I try to look as dumb as I can when I’m acting,” he told a reporter in 1945, as he tried to revive his flagging career, “but you see that I have a soul and I’m thinking fast.”

Black actors in the 1930s and ’40s knew their place in Hollywood. But they slyly found a way to break down barriers, Watkins contends. It is McDaniel who has been credited with saying she’d rather play a maid in films than be one in real life.

There’s pain and bitterness in her remark, but also pride and determination.

Watkins places stars like Fetchit, McDaniel, Ethel Waters and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — and also early white stars like W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton — firmly in the times that produced them. Ethnic humor, often the lowest form, was and still is popular with American audiences. Watkins makes interesting comparisons between early depictions of blacks and images promoted in today’s hip-hop culture.

That Fetchit achieved any sort of wealth or lasting fame was astonishing, given the hardships blacks faced in every aspect of life in the first half of the 20th century. That Perry died penniless and nearly forgotten, his stage name an epithet akin to calling someone an “Uncle Tom,” is both a cruel form of justice and a terrible shame.

Watkins sheds much-needed light on that paradox.

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com