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During the height of the Great Depression there were two films, Hallejuah and In Old Kentucky, that were released within a short time of each other; and so for the first time in American film history the major studios had an all black cast. Before then, blacks were only minor characters, in most instances they were played by white actors – in blackface. Exemptions from this rule include an actuality from the Edison studio, where a black boy is washed by his mother.

The juxtaposition between the dark skin of the boy and the foamy, white bubbles indicate his “tragic state”, invoking the laments of the female in Solomon’s Songs of Song: nigra sum sed formosa and the onerous burden of the master race as Kipling wrote.

The significance of this event in film history cannot be understated because blacks finally gained access to the Hollywood studio establishment; nonetheless there is a tragic story behind this milestone in American history. Immediately after starring in In Old Kentucky a young actor by the name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry catapulted into stardom. Relatively few people except film scholars and cinéphiles know his stage name, Stepin Fetchit, which is now synonymous with racial slurs like Uncle Tom, golliwog and house negro.

The forgotten legacy of Lincoln Perry is actually a significant event in itself and in film and American cultural history for two simple reasons: he was the first black film star, thus paving the way for actors such as Sidney Poitier later on, and his life epitomizes the struggles of black individuals in American society during the 20th century.  Perry’s character Stepin Fetchit became known as the “the laziest man in the world” in films. By doing so he therefore attracted the ire of future generations, i.e. by the few nowadays which actually know him, who often cringe when his name is mentioned.

While at the pinnacle of his career, the NAACP attacked his persona as they felt that he represented a stereotype that was demeaning to blacks. He was always being ordered around in films and he was considered a caricature of blacks: lazy, stupid and ignorant. This stereotype, which is still in use today, can be seen in old Warner Bros cartoons in a hyperbolic caricature of Perry’s persona. The film career of Perry follows the trajectory of the film careers of other black actors – and especially the representations of blacks often authored and controlled by a white studio system and a predominately white audience. After breaking into the film industry, the fate of many actors was to succumb to substance abuse and often end up in menial jobs, which was a far cry from their former illustrious careers. One need look no further than Dorothy Dandridge.

Not long after the NAACP finally got its way by ridding the airwaves and television of Amos and Andy and Stepit Fetchit. Perry was not able obtain the same star billing and wages as other white actors, thus he fought a losing battle with Fox despite his former success he became a persona non grata amongst the Hollywood studio system and a pariah to many middle class blacks. Perry escaped into the so called “race films” and later disappeared altogether only to be discovered in a nursing home as a destitute stroke victim.

Afterwards, other black actors would follow in his footsteps and the critical stance taken by many against Perry coincides with the criticism Sidney Poitier received during the Black Power movement, as he was considered just another fabricated myth of the dominating culture: an Uncle Ben or the perfect black man. However in recent times there has been a reevaluation of Lincoln Perry’s legacy and a recent biography and an interview on NPR suggests a different reading: he was the ultimate trickster because he quite simply never got to fetching anything at all. Without the significant event of an all black cast and Lincoln Perry as the first black star one could argue that things could have turned out differently.

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