In Praise of Stepin Fetchit

stepin fetchit looking moderately stupid
Mr. Stepin Fetchit, pictured here looking only moderately stupid.

No, of course not. What am I, an idiot?

We have all seen snippets of the Great Black Idiot being a dumbass, and as a result I suspect that most people think that was all he boiled down to – a dumbass n***er held up as an example of his race’s supposed inferiority. As offensive as that would be, he was actually worse than that. Not only is Stepin so dumb as to make Homer Simpson look like someone who isn’t quite as dumb as Homer Simpson, he is also the embodiment of a myriad of other negatives – so many, in fact, that he falls only a couple of flaws short of all Seven Deadly Sins, but that’s only because wrath would require too much energy. And I mean it when I say he is so dumb he makes Homer look smart – poor Stepin seems to spend a lot of his time standing there looking confused for no good reason, as if he is so dimwitted that he can’t even figure out in which direction to go or which foot to move first!  He also mumbles a lot, as if he has gone prematurely senile. True, since he is mumbling we don’t know what he is actually saying and it is always possible that he is delivering a dissertation on nuclear physics, but somehow I don’t think so.

In the “Our Gang” feature “A Tough Winter” we not only find out that Stepin is a lousy plumber and an inadequate electrician who can get tap water burning without benefit of fracking, but also a bit on the smelly side. In one scene, he pulls off a bunch of gloves and, getting down to the last one and finding one of the glove fingers missing, he comments, “Ah thought ah smelt a draft!” while holding his finger up to his nose. Oh, just charming… Whether his smelliness is a matter of poor  hygiene or race we are not told, but given the nature of the character it is not going too far to suggest it’s probably the latter.

Stepin is not only thick as a brick and smelly to boot, but also lazy as a Mexican – if there wasn’t a white man around to prod him into action, poor old Fetchit would never get off his bony ass. On top of this, he is also a cringing coward who fears his own shadow even more than he fears hard work, but not as much as he fears his white boss’ disapproval. As a result, he is, ironically, both disobedient and offensively servile! But his is not a rebellious disobedience, this is not some Uppity Negro standing up to The Man in a covert sort of way, this is just a lazy coward. And not wanting to leave out any negative black stereotypes, Hollywood also threw in at least one sign that the guy is not only a coward, a clown, and a couch potato, but also a thug! In “Charlie Chan in Egypt,” there is a scene in which the lights in an Egyptian tomb go out, something scary happens, and when the lights come back on Stepin is grappling with a white man while grasping in one hand an old fashioned cut-throat razor! Now, while he presumably does not know the man he is grappling with is one of his “friends,” one has to wonder why he is carrying a razor – outside the house, in the middle of the night – and why he is so quick to put it to use! Because he’s a negro, and hence a thug and always ready for deadly violence, that’s why!

In “Big Timers,” Stepin adds alcoholism to his sins. While everyone else is happy to have only one drink, he has as many as he can get his smelly hands on, and even then complains that he’s too dry to lick a stamp. Perhaps this explains why he spends so much time trembling for no apparent reason –  at first I thought he might be suffering from some sort of spasticity, but now I suspect it may simply be delirium tremens. I must say, though, that at least in this short he’s surrounded by other, rather normal, negroes so at least he comes across as an exception rather than the sole representative of his race. A small saving grace, at best.

I have to point out that my experience of Mr. Fetchit’s work is limited to the above works and the first half of a rather tedious movie called Judge Priest, but if these works are representative of his output it is no wonder intelligent blacks hate this guy — he portrayed them as everything undesirable under the sun. Frankly, Stepin is such a thoroughly reprehensible character that I am surprised nobody in Hollywood decided to make a movie in which he was the one who kidnapped and murdered the Lindbergh baby!

Was the man behind Fetchit, Lincoln Perry, too dumb to know what he was doing? Was he a millionaire psychopath who had no problem selling out his race as long as he was making out like a bandit? Was he someone who saw his work as a (heh, heh) stepin’ stone for the likes of Sidney Poitier? I don’t know, and even amongst blacks who have taken a closer look at the man the opinion seems split. He apparently was fairly intelligent in real life and wrote articles for one of the negro newspapers of the day, but if he was being “progressive” you would think he would at least have had the decency to limit his screen persona’s flaws to stupidity and laziness. But  even if ( and that’s a mighty big “if”) Lincoln Perry was doing all this in order to open doors for other blacks there is no doubt that Stepin Fetchit is still the most repulsively racist character I have ever seen in the movies. The ultimate judgment on Mr. Fetchit boils down to one word – yeech!

As a rather odd afterword, a very bizarre fact about Stepin Fetchit is that his son was a spree killer – a real life one. Seems in the late sixties his son Donald went on a shooting rampage along a Pennsylvania highway and shot eighteen people, killing three, which shows that not only was he a scumbag but also a lousy shot. Three out of eighteen — even his dad could have done better, and he was thick as a brick and drunk most of the time!

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