Rehabilitating Stepin Fetchit.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 5 2005 7:08 AM

Back in Blackface

The rehabilitation of "Stepin Fetchit."

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Given the contemporary success of black performers and innumerable hip-hop artists who flirt with shameless, disreputable images, Stepin Fetchit's legacy—from popular figure to pariah—takes on new importance. Should African-American performers be accountable to political correctness? To what degree should they worry that their antics shape the self-image of young African-Americans? Should they follow any standard other than their own conscience? Should they have a conscience? Watkins ends his tale with complaints about Lincoln Perry's late-in-life ostracism by Hollywood and the black community. He notes that Perry was haunted by his own out-of-date image as the "laziest man on earth" whose brand of comedy was no longer tolerable in the 1970s. Watkins laments that Perry's identity became confused with the figure of Stepin Fetchit, and that in this ignominy a misunderstood artist was sent to oblivion.

But Watkins disregards the effect Stepin Fetchit's odious comedy had on the moviegoing public. The psychological rationale for racism cuts two ways—flattering whites and defaming blacks—and it rebounded upon Stepin Fetchit and stained his soul. Watkins revives the ghost without heeding the opportunistic performers who follow Stepin Fetchit's path, a scary thing.

Film and music critic Armond White's book on Morrissey, Knee Deep in Great Experiences, will be published next year.