*contains spoilers and strong course language
My favourite memory of Fetchit is in the movie Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) where he plays a black Muslim helper to Charlie Chan who smokes a hookah, no doubt containing hashish, and spends time in the back seat of his car with his girlfriend. Is it such a dreadful stereotype? I thought he was rather cool despite the fact he had to play it as though he really was dopily stoned. His career stalled that year after his friend Will Rogers (1879-1935 plane crash), who gave him almost equal credit in his film Judge Priest (1934), died suddenly. In Judge Priest, Fetchit falls asleep in the courtroom where he is appearing in front of the magistrate played by Rogers. The truth perhaps being he could still sleep night or day despite the injustices he apparently faced on screen.
Will Rogers was a man of political influence and his friendship with Fetchit proved that when Rogers spoke for the average Joe it was with the bigger picture in mind. Rogers’s biographer wrote about Rogers’s of his fellow Americans: “He could help them. He was their friend. He was America.” As for Fetchit, he would end his career in all black films of the late 1940s and have a final appearance as the ‘dancing butler’ in Won Ton Ton the Dog that Saved Hollywood (1976). Fetchit’s role was a homage to another black actor, the tap-dancing Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949 heart failure). Robinson is a more respected figure than these other men for his achievements in the annuls of black entertainers and for his community work – he died penniless. As for Fetchit, he lived out his life in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital for paying his dues and was buried in an unmarked grave to this day for his sins. He was Catholic.
As for Willie Best, he appears to have had his name of Sleep N’ Eat inspired by Amos’N’Andy. Best had this name for about half a dozen movies and was a fresh-faced teenager at the time. His first appearance was in Feet First (1930) starring comedian Harold Lloyd (1893-1971 prostate cancer). It was Best who became what others would see as a lackey for his stereotypical portrayals and while his name was changed back to Willie Best which showed some type of respect and social acceptance within the industry, for him the character he portrayed rarely changed throughout his career.
He probably peaked in 1941 when he was credited in ten films alone. He appeared The Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939) and Laurel and Hardy’s A-Haunting We Will Go (1942). In the Humphrey Bogart movie High Sierra (1941) he walks among the cast like he is one of the family but just like the musical sequence in Thank You’re Lucky Stars (1942) entitled Ice Cold Katy in which he appeared with Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (1893-1952 breast cancer), he was still segregated, as that sequence with its all-black cast is separate from the rest of the all-white movie. Willie Best would appear in MGM’s one-off return to the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943) directed by Vincente Minnelli, which had a script which was reportedly approved by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. There were still white protests when it was shown in the south. Cabin in the Sky also starred Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (1905-77 heart disease) who was famous for playing comedian Jack Benny’s (1894-1974 pancreatic cancer) valet and people forget how popular he really became for his character that, as Benny joked: evaded work, wanted to go and drink in Central Park and gambled. And only black men do that!?
Wille Best was known for his taste in fine women, both black and white, and fine dope. There were reports he was hooked on heroin but it appears unlikely due to the fine movies he appeared in. It was the drugs which led to a narcotic arrest in 1949 which suddenly ended his movie career. He was forgiven enough to appear in cheap tv shows as an elevator operator in My Little Margie (1953-55) and as a servant or handyman in Trouble with Father (1950-55). It all ended in 1955 for Willie Best as he was cursed for his former career and times were changing. His health possibly compromised by years of hard living, he died forgotten in 1962 and was buried in an unmarked grave, something only remedied by fans in 2008 with a marker.
The arrival of the black character as an educated man in the movies was first suggested in Technicolor by William Marshall who made his film debut as the polygamous King Dick in the movie Lydia Bailey (1952). He played an astute and clever man aligned with the black revolutionaries in Haiti where the film was set to off-set any complaint about such a man existing in the States. The black revolution over there was a fantasy after all! The film puts its two main white characters in blackface to save their lives. The hero of the movie is asked if it’s “all over” just in case he has to urinate or whatever. Just like everyone else!
It is through their experience in blackface that the couple in the movie learn first-hand the black experience. And part of that, according to King Dick, is to make believe you are stupid to appease any hostility from whites or even other violent blacks.
Another film which came out the same year was Red Ball Express (1952), which was one of the first movies to feature Sidney Poitier (1927-). The film is about the truck drivers who fed the front-line tanks with fuel supplies during the Allied offensive towards the end of World War Two. And like where Hallelujah left off, there is a kind of spiritual song sung by the black and white soldiers as they pass the supplies to one another and unload the trucks. The words are changed to anti-Hitler rhetoric. It is a desegregated depiction of troops but the truth is that while that movie showed most of the Red Ball Express were white, really back in 1944 when the war was on, around 75% of the Red Ball Express crew were actually black and the mission was considered suicidal.
“The army wouldn’t let us tell the truth about the black troops because the government figured they were expendable,” said the film’s director Budd Boetticher (1916-2001), who served as a war photographer during the real conflict: “Our government didn’t want to admit they were kamikaze pilots. They figured if one out of ten trucks got through, they’d save Patton and his tanks.”
Poitier makes an impression in this movie but this good start in terms of social integration was interrupted by the election of the Republican Eisenhower government and Willie Best was back again playing servants and handymen on television. It wouldn’t be until Poitier’s appearance in The Defiant Ones (1958) that the common denominator of an outlaw coming in both colours of black and white, and what if they were handcuffed together and learnt about each other’s souls, that some real steps were made in the right direction in the portrayal of blacks on screen. But I’m jumping ahead as the off-screen movement had begun, however, a few years earlier in 1955…
Poitier made an appearance as an incorrigible student in The Blackboard Jungle (1955). The same month this film was released in March of that year, another ‘incorrigible’ student in the form of fifteen-year-old black girl Claudette Colvin (1939-) refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks (1913-2005) repeated the ‘crime’ later in the year in the same city and became a cause celebre as the civil rights movement began in earnest… This was 1955, when Willie Best’s shows were cancelled and the actor apparently retired his image and was promptly forgotten.
The election of the Kennedy administration in the same year that The Defiant Ones was released in 1958 saw a new optimism. In 1961, there was the publication of the book Black Like Me. It was turned into a movie in 1965 with actor James Whitmore (1921-2009 lung cancer) as the title character who in real life took special drugs and had sun lamp treatments to darken his skin so he could wander the South and experience firsthand what it was like to be a black man in America. Essentially, Whitmore’s character is in blackface for the movie rather than the real drug treatment and he reacts like an uptight white man in blackface just like Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled. But he is accepted or rejected as a black just the same in both communities. We learn there is no difference except the colour of your skin.
The film version of Black Like Me starts on a segregated bus which gives the movie its immediacy and existential reality as Whitmore is accused of being uppity for offering his seat to a white woman. But we learn as the movie goes into flashback that Whitmore has been taught how to act and he learns this when a black man is picked up and harassed by a white bus driver who then acts, almost ironically, stupid to pacify the ire of the displeased driver. This man puts on his Willie Best act to gain acceptance in the eyes of the bigot. So, the character portrayed by Willie Best appears to be a real aspect of the black character, or an aspect used as a part of the black experience, to survive. He isn’t pandering to the white man and is instead a trickster who in real life loves his women and partying and otherwise being himself. And perhaps also loves peace.
“That’s the way to get along,” says a shoeshine to Whitmore. “Tend your own business.” And this man doesn’t change his tune or friendliness when Whitmore reveals that he is really a white man in disguise and asks for help to “act right” as a black man. There were no role models in the movies for Whitmore to copy, or any real literature in terms of the black experience to delve into. No documentary evidence as it was all ignored or suppressed… And he knew Willie Best’s character wasn’t the truth.
At least by the time of Silver Streak (1976) when Gene Wilder (1933-2016 Alzheimer’s disease) dons blackface to escape capture by the police under Richard Pryor’s (1940-2005 heart attack) tutelage, we are in on the joke about the true black experience as opposed to the tight-ass whitey frightened of being murdered if he doesn’t appear to belong. Only ten years earlier in Black Like Me it was a matter of life or death in the South. Perhaps it still is!
For black and white to be working together as a comedy team got rejected in 1955 as possibly too controversial when Manton Moreland was approached by Moe Howard (1897-1975 lung cancer) to become one of The Three Stooges after Shemp Howard’s (1895-1955 heart attack) death. Columbia Pictures vetoed the idea and Joe Besser (1907-88 heart failure) was adopted.
“Had Moreland been one of the 3 Stooges rather than Joe Besser, the Stooges would have been even more successful,” said Moe in an interview before his death.
Just a word on Manton Moreland and he appeared shortly after Willie Best arrived in terms of the movies although he had been busy in vaudeville. He appeared in low-budget all-black cast movies too and so was also readily accepted by black audiences. Moreland’s bulging eyes made him perfect as the cowardly black stereotype in such films as King of the Zombies (1941) and its follow-up Revenge of the Zombies (1943). Whereas Willie Best got credited for his roles in A-movies, Moreland’s appearance in The Palm Beach Story (1942) went uncredited. He found popular acceptance in the cheaply made Monogram Charlie Chan movies of the mid-1940s where he played Chan’s chauffeur Birmingham Brown. Willie Best would play his cousin Chattanooga Brown in a couple of Chan movies and they were both comedy relief taken to the maximum. Moreland’s, at times, dim-witted character legitimised the intelligence of Chinese detective Charlie Chan and made him palatable to white audiences even though it was Sidney Toler (1874-1947 intestinal cancer) playing the Asian in a kind of blackface or oriental eye make-up. When the Chan films ended in 1949, Moreland wouldn’t make another mainstream movie until a couple of years after Willie Best’s death in Jerry Lewis’s The Patsy (1964). He had made the horror black comedy Spider Baby (1967) a couple of years earlier but it sat on the shelf possibly because his portrayal as a cowardly messenger wasn’t seen as funny anymore and didn’t quite yet fit into the role of satire as it was portrayed in Bamboozled. An actress on that film described Moreland as being “embarrassed” by the role. When he died in 1973, it wasn’t in an unmarked grave near where Willie Best rested in the same cemetery.
Wilder and Pryor were a natural comedy team for a child brought up on the integrated children shows by The Children’s Television Workshop such as The Electric Company and Sesame Street and this article hasn’t the scope nor me the time to research other aspects – so I may leave out important people and points only you can look into. For example, Dooley Wilson (1886-1953 natural causes) is a cool character who sings As Time Goes By in Casablanca (1942) but he too is segregated from the main story. Then there is Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970) which has a black theatrical troupe turn the tables on its WASP audience and in a role-reversal makes them wear blackface as they are treated badly and beaten up and raped by actors dressed in whiteface for them to experience the reality of what it’s like to Be Black, Baby in the late 1960s. It had me in paroxysms when I first saw it.
There is an almost surreal scene in Bamboozled where a studio audience wearing blackface gets warmed up for The Minstrel Show by a comedian in blackface dressed as Abraham Lincoln. The film has so many jibes and points to make but, ultimately, it’s a tragedy with a smile on its face. In the end, as Pierre Delacroix dies, he has his life flash before his eyes through clips of how the black man has been portrayed and demeaned on screen over the last century… He had looked too deeply into the negative aspects of the past that it drove him mad.
As for racism in America, I thought the worst was over but when I went to a group interview of journalists with actor Kurt Russell for his promotion of Stargate in London at The Savoy in 1994, an American journalist hijacked the conference with the question of the relevance of the white man in America today in a country where the black man seemed to be on the ascendant. Well, you couldn’t stop Russell talking long-windedly in response about how the white man was still relevant… I was only in my mid-20s but one of the senior British journalists rolled his eyes at me as we left afterwards. I didn’t exploit the racist aspect of what I heard as a possible article in respect of Goldie Hawn and the fact that she and Russell had signed my Foul Play (1978) and The Thing (1982) posters a few years earlier at the opening of Warner Bros. Movie World. I must try and dig out that tape of the interview.
The early sound movie Hallelujah hesitantly began a movement which was stalled by The Great Depression to show the black experience to whites in the movies back in 1929… Even if it’s a happy ending does have a son returning home to his hard-working family “just in time to pick cotton.” It’s a happy ending just the same even though a gun has been responsible for the unhappiness in between. It seems that a gun is always a commonplace prop and key to the stories told in American movies. But that’s another issue.
The arrival of the sound stand-up blackface comedy team Amos’ N’ Andy may have heralded a new era of the depiction of the black man but it was rivalled later by the funnier real black comedians Manton Moreland and early civil rights activist Ben Carter (1910-46 diphtheria) in a couple of Chan movies named The Scarlet Clue (1945) and Dark Alibi (1946). Even if they are only a precious, few minutes, their almost psychic routine puts Amos’N’Andy in their place as incredibly passe. They were a possible break out team in terms of black comedians in mainstream b-movies which ended with Carter’s sudden death.
Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled may have changed his name to make it in the white world of television but this sophistication of pandering himself to win an award led to a self-deprecation he attempted to put on the small screen but couldn’t begin to apply to himself as a human being. And Spike Lee has made it funny.
As for Willie Best, he should be seen as a social metaphor for peace back in the days of segregation rather than being dismissed for being just the – seemingly – stupid and lazy character he portrayed. The same could be said for Manton Moreland and Stepin Fetchit. Really, Best is a symbol of a smart man bucking the system due to the fact that system allowed him to be used as a token. He was a professional who got credit for his work. Until his drug arrest he had a good reputation but in the end he remained unforgiven by both black and white Americans during his lifetime for allowing himself to be seemingly degraded on screen for so long a time.
It’s hard to explain that this notion of apparent self-degradation is related to self-deprecation in not letting on it is part of the joke on the whites in the first place. It kept the peace in a time when the law was stacked against the black population. I’m sure Bob Hope truly respected Willie Best, perhaps until the day he died, despite saying in The Ghost Breakers (1940): “Oh, you look like a black out in a blackout. This keeps up I’m gonna have to paint you white.”
Who bamboozled, or made a monkey out of who, when we speak of Willie Best, and the studio system and the audiences that watched at the time?
“I hear they’re nuts about coloured fellows over in Australia,” says a lascivious white man who picks up a hitchhiking James Whitmore in Black Like Me, and just wants to know about his sexual prowess.
The truth is the Europeans murdered and broke the hearts and minds of the Indigenous Australian population ever since they ‘discovered’ the country in 1770 and even went so far as to relocate their own mixed-race children to live with white families or in settlements to save them from the indignity that was and, in some places, still is, the horror of the reservations. See Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). That was different kind of segregation and, as they say, another story.
“You black c*#t,” said a rather short and unpleasant moustachioed photographer to me, for no particular reason, when I did work experience for a newspaper as a teenager. And you know what? I didn’t answer back and remained dumb if not dumbfounded. He didn’t have a gun to my head. Imagine if it were for a lifetime?