Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

Blacks in Film and Television

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Stepin Fetchit as Gummy in the film Hearts in Dixie, 1929

Courtesy of AP

The first African American movie star Stepin Fetchit, born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, began his career as vaudeville performer. In the 1920s when sound was added to motion pictures and America's desire for entertainment moved from stage to film so did many vaudeville actors. As was the case in the early days of film, and later television, black actors took the work that was available and in many cases the roles written for African Americans were steeped in racial stereotypes. In films such as In Old Kentucky (1927) and Hearts in Dixie (1929—shown here) Fetchit played characters that were lazy, dimwitted, inarticulate, and slow—all deeply negative racial stereotypes characteristic of the time. Stepin Fetchit's career ended in 1930s in part due to criticism from civil rights groups. Criticism of Fetchit did not end with his film career and in 1968 he sued CBS for vilifying his role in the history of cinema. While history does not look back kindly on the roles that Fetchit depicted there is no doubt that as the first African American movie star Fetchit opened innumerable doors.

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