Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon

By Aram Goudsouzian | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
MESSAGE MOVIES
(1949–1952)

“I been doing awful,” moaned Stepin Fetchit. In February 1945, he turned to John Ford, director of four Fetchit movies and then a lieutenant commander in the Navy. Calling his situation a “Home Front emergency,” Fetchit begged for a shred of screen time. He stroked the ego of the notoriously paternalistic Ford by delighting in “the lavish news that I was the recipient of a phone call from a Commander in the United States Navy and a Lieutenant Commander Star of Screen and Democracy.” The flattery worked. The next year Ford pitched a revival of Fetchit’s career to Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck. “I think we would have a great character to introduce to the Public again as bellboy, porter, night clerk, waiter, bootblack, bartender and chambermaid,” wrote Ford.

Zanuck demurred. “No one has laughed longer or louder at Stepin Fetchit than I have,” he wrote, “but to put him on the screen at this time would I am afraid raise terrible objections from the colored people.” Since 1942, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, had been lobbying for more positive screen images of blacks. Zanuck remembered that White had singled out Fetchit “as an example of the humiliation of the colored race. Stepin Fetchit always portrays the lazy, stupid half-wit, and this is the thing that the colored people are furious about.” Traditional portrayals of black jesters had acquired a political taint.1

Around this same time, in August 1945, Branch Rickey summoned Jackie Robinson into his office. The president of the Brooklyn Dodgers greeted the dark-skinned second baseman: “You got a girl?” Robinson did. Rickey proposed to make Robinson the first black player in organized baseball since the late nineteenth century. He had researched Robinson’s background, including his UCLA education and military service. He had one final test: could Robinson withstand the fury of white detractors? For over two hours baseball’s “Mahatma” scrutinized Robinson. He mimicked a rude white hotel clerk. He imitated an angry baserunner.

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