October 19, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Stepin Fetchit

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
Mel Watkins
publisher
Pantheon
genre
Biography, Nonfiction
We gave it a B+

Bill Cosby once said that the black actor Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) popularized ”the tradition of the lazy, stupid, crap-shooter, chicken-stealing idiot,” which is a bit mild: Perry, billed as Stepin Fetchit, reigned in the 1920s and ’30s ”as the most controversial, enigmatic, and highly paid black performer in Hollywood” by transforming himself into a comic stereotype of mythological proportions. Though Mel Watkins addresses the actor’s deep contradictions in Stepin Fetchit — those of an on-screen racial caricaturist who was also a ”race-conscious agitator for equal treatment” on set — that enigmatic quality remains intact. Perry may be too elusive to be the subject of a satisfying ”life,” yet Watkins’ book beautifully evokes the ”times” of Stepin Fetchit, providing a surprisingly fresh look at the complex history of blackness and the silver screen.

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