Caught "Charlie Chan in Egypt" on Turner Classic Movies recently and the most striking thing about it was the enormous difference in tone between the comic relief provided by two different African-American actors. I came to know and love Mantan Moreland through Charlie Chan. I was familiar with Stepin Fetchit mostly through literary criticism. "Charlie Chan in Egypt" was actually the first movie in which Stepin Fetchit played a major supporting role that I can remember watching since I was a kid.
Even though Mantan Moreland's recurring character in the Charlie Chan series, Birmingham Brown, certainly was limited to a racist stereotype, Moreland nevertheless managed somehow to transcend much of the genuinely egregious exhibitions of bigoted prejudice to which Stepin Fetchit was subjected. Where Moreland's character was jittery and lacked bravery, Fetchit's character helping Chan out in Egypt is shiftless and cowardly. Where Birmingham Brown is allowed to be clever and considered the equal of Chan's sons, Fetchit's character known only as Snowshoes, is clearly inferior.
Only the most ridiculous real life example of the stereotypical NRA-belonging, pickup truck-driving, NASCAR-loving, rebel flag-waving racist redneck could find Stepin Fetchit's character in total a thing of great comedy.
And yet, there are moments when your disgust that the man born as Lincoln Theodore Perry was forced to engage in such demeaning behavior in order to produce laughter from the overwhelmingly white audience inside 1935 movie theaters is allowed to lapse. The basic character traits and personality of Snowshoes grows tiresome more quickly than Robert Downey Jr.'s snarkiness as Tony Stark. One is forced to admit, however, that Stepin Fetchit's comedic talent is enough that even the racism expressed in the ideological apparatus that was Hollywood's studio system is not enough to allow for complete interpellation of the viewer as a subject doomed to reproducing prejudice.
Not everybody who laughs at Stepin Fetchit's slow-shuffling, slow-speaking, dimwitted, not-very-reliable pre-Civil Rights Era stereotype of the black man presented in nearly every movie appearance of his career is going to be able to separate the bald racism associated with those moments of transcendent humor. Indeed, if a wave of nausea does fall over a white viewer of Stepin Fechit's appearances in Hollywood comedy films, it may well be a sign of a social failure on your part that needs to be addressed.
If you do feel that disgust, but are able to recognize that the specific moments humor of Fetchit that you are laughing at are indeed moments in which you are laughing at the talent of the man and not the atrocious sense of humor of the screenwriter, then you relax. It is okay for white audiences to laugh at Stepin Fetchit. Doing so does not make you a racist.
Laughing at what Hollywood forced talented actors like Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland and countless others to do in order to derive laughter from the massive majority of white audiences of the 1930s conditioned to accept racism as a natural state of affairs and not sophisticated enough to question this constructed reality is something else entirely.
For more from Timothy Sexton, check out:
- Arts & Entertainment
- Mantan Moreland
- Charlie Chan
- Stepin Fetchit
- Charlie Chan in Egypt