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Remembering a Forgotten Black (and Blacklisted) Film Actor

Canada Lee was a groundbreaker and inspiration to African Americans

Feb. 7, 2017
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As a movie-happy youngster in Milwaukee, I recall how African Americans in the 1940s to early ’50s marveled at the late black actor, Canada Lee, for his quality work in movies. In those days, most Hollywood movies focused on big-name white film stars.

To be sure, there were talented black big-screen performers in those days, including Hattie McDaniel, James Edwards, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Ethel Waters, Ruby Dee, Robert Earl Jones, Mantan Moreland, Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge. And we loved them.

Yet, the dark-skinned Lee, whose striking facial features often dominated the screen, was truly memorable in four films: Lifeboat (1944), Body and Soul (1947), Lost Boundaries (1949) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1951). In the latter, he and Poitier co-starred as South African ministers in Poitier’s first major role. 

Although revered in black communities nationwide back then, this fine actor is rarely mentioned anywhere these days. Except for occasional showings of his films on Turner Classic Movies, he seems largely forgotten.

A versatile thespian, Lee previously performed notably on the New York stage in plays such as Haiti (1938), Mamba’s Daughters (1939), Big White Fog (1940), Native Son (1941) and South Pacific (1943). His work in Richard Wright’s Native Son earned rave reviews. 

Along with Paul Robeson and other film personalities and entertainers in the post-World War II years, Lee was accused of Communist leanings and blacklisted. His career suffered as a result and he passed away in 1952 at the age of 45, shortly before he was to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. 

During his time, Lee worked with the likes of Robeson, Wright, Langston Hughes, Rex Ingram, Margo Jones, Adam Clayton Powell, William Greaves, Leigh Whipper, Orson Welles, Tallulah Bankhead and John Garfield.

In his first major movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, he played Joe Spencer, an ex-pickpocket and ship steward to a famous columnist (Tallulah Bankhead). He and eight other people are stranded in the North Atlantic in World War II after their passenger ship and a German submarine sink each other. Lee saves a female passenger (Heather Angel) and her baby, lifts a compass from a German survivor and disarms a second German sailor they rescued.

A star-struck youth, I clearly recall my parents returning from seeing Lifeboat at Bronzeville’s Regal Theater and raving about Lee’s work. My mother said she loved the dignity he displayed in conversing with the white actors—especially the glamorous, haughty Bankhead. 

As a result, I made it my business to make sure to see Lee’s other movies in subsequent years. And, indeed, he was outstanding as a doomed, ex-boxer in Body and Soul, a sympathetic Harlem police detective in the groundbreaking race drama Lost Boundaries and towering work as a rural South African minister seeking his wayward son in Johannesburg in Cry, the Beloved Country, his final film.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of Lee’s screen work was in Abraham Polonsky’s Body and Soul, one of the best-ever boxing movies. This film gained fame for its compelling, climactic fight scenes filmed on roller skates by James Wong Howe.

Lee brought his own experience as a successful boxer to his riveting role as Ben Chaplin, an ex-fighter-turned trainer. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a distraught Lee urges champion Charley Davis (John Garfield) to press for a knockout in his title defense, then dies in a training ring from a blood clot on the brain.

An outspoken civil rights activist, Lee had a heart attack while filming Cry, the Beloved Country in apartheid South Africa after he and Poitier were smuggled into the country as indentured servants. At the time of his death a year later, he was preparing to play Shakespeare’s Othello in a new movie.

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