An excerpt by Jim Emerson:
Stepin Fetchit remains one of the most fascinating, infuriating, polarizing, pathetic and perplexing figures in movie history. I've never known quite how to read him. Is he the hoary embodiment of the racist stereotype of the lazy, shuffling Negro? Is he a once-familiar humorous archetype from African-American tradition that people today -- black or white -- just don't know how to interpret or understand anymore?
The truth about him is probably complex enough to accommodate both of these perspectives... and others between and beyond them.
And an excerpt by Armond White:
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry—the actor who created Stepin Fetchit—was born in 1902 and named to honor presidents. An emblematic figure in 1930s Hollywood, Perry played the quintessential lazy, foolish American Negro—first on the black vaudeville "chitlin' circuit," where he got the tag "The Laziest Man on Earth," and later in dozens of movies. But with the advent of the civil rights era, Fetchit became a target of radical political sentiments. He was famously excoriated on a 1968 primetime CBS documentary Of Black America narrated by Bill Cosby. In the decades since, he has been virtually forgotten.
And from Roy Hurst of NPR:
By the mid-1930s, Perry was at his peak -- and black leaders were putting pressure on Hollywood to rid the screen of the stereotype he was responsible for creating. They believed the Stepin Fetchit character was keeping white America from viewing blacks as capable of joining the mainstream.
Comedian Jimmy Walker knows something about being accused of perpetuating a negative stereotype. His portrayal of J.J. Evans in the sitcom Good Times was criticized as a return of the minstrel show.
"The way they make it sound, it's like black people are permanently harmed by Stepin Fetchit," Walker says. "And I don't agree with that -- I don't think it's a bad character. I think it's a funny character." Walker points out that the Fetchit character is actually a subversive trickster -- he never got around to fetching anything.
"The lazy man character that [Perry] played was based on something that had come from slavery," Watkins says. "It was called 'putting on old massa' -- break the tools, break the hoe, do anything to postpone the work that was to be done."
Finally, the white characters would become exasperated and do the work themselves. "And blacks understood it perfectly, and laughed heartily at it," Watkins says. For his part, Perry was laughing all the way to the bank. By the mid-1930s, he was a millionaire with a fleet of luxury cars and expensive suits.
But by the end of the 1930s, Perry's star began to wane. The NAACP was gaining some influence in Hollywood and Perry was in a constant battle with Fox Studios to get equal pay and billing as his white co-stars -- a battle he never won. By 1940, he walked away from Hollywood, and within just a few years he was broke. To the emerging civil rights movement, Perry was a symbol of something black America wanted to forget, and he faded into obscurity.