The Making of an Icon

Lincoln Perry was an American comedian and actor who, in the 1920s and 30s, was one of the highest paid actors working in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was the first black actor to become a millionaire, working alongside some of the most famous early motion picture artists. He was a shrewd negotiator, a brilliant strategist, hard working and deliberate. But he was known throughout his life as the iconic and controversial character he created: the lazy, shiftless, mumbling Stepin Fetchit.

Perry was a master at the creation of his image. The outward persona of Stepin Fetchit very little resembled the man, but was crafted so convincingly that the world believed that Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit were one and the same. In the early part of the 20th century, Perry’s options as a performer were limited by where artists of color were able to perform and by America’s perception of black men. He took those perceptions, used them, exaggerated them, exploited them to his advantage and made a career of playing with image in a way, and in a larger and more accessible medium, than any other black actor had before. For this, Perry was vilified, at the time and for years to come, said by many to embody the negative stereotypes of black men. He was accused of being a tool of white oppression, an Uncle Tom, and of holding black culture back by presenting an unflattering and shallow view of an entire population.

Similarly, when Cassius Clay came out as a boxer in the early 1960s, his outspoken bragging and playful way with words – and his insistence that others recognize his physical prowess and good looks – outraged people across the country. He was loud and proud and an intimidating 6’3,” 215-pound young black man who hit people for a living. But Clay was also fiercely charming, extremely hard working, intelligent, devout, loyal and, in his private life, a modest and thoughtful man.

Clay came of age during the Civil Rights era, a time of great transition that had many people deeply invested in who would represent black Americans. Emerging from the shadows of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Minister Malcolm X, Cassius Clay infamously became Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali; a spokesperson for many black Americans, he perfectly executed the role he played in the public eye.

“Ali cultivated an image that was the warrior and the politician. It seems to be in juxtaposition to what the image that Stepin Fetchit was doing, but they were both doing something that was very important,” commented director Derrick Sanders to the cast and creative team at the first rehearsal for Fetch Clay, Make Man. “How do you keep that core of yourself as you try to cultivate an image to move people forward, whether it’s through laughter or through fighting?”

Both Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit were cultural icons in a shifting America. They both made choices about who they were, as public figures and as private men. Both had people around them who wanted to shape and form their identities, some with righteous motives and some exploitative. Despite manipulation coming from all sides, each man was able to maintain a sense of self as well as a savvy understanding of how the persona they presented was moving society forward.