In 1940, a white kid shows up at actor Canada Lee’s door in Harlem. Lee knows him, met the lonely teenager backstage while starring in Broadway’s Native Son.
The kid asks to stay; Lee says yes, lets him remain a year. Introduces the kid to the lights of the Harlem Renaissance, loans him money for college. Later, the kid becomes a Civil Rights activist, goes on to found Physicians for Human Rights, creates the first US community health center, eventually leading to 1000 in America alone.
It’s the kind of story that baffles comprehension, but then, so does Lee’s whole life: jockey, boxer, musician, Broadway producer and star, groundbreaking film & radio actor, Civil Rights leader. He played Banquo as part of an all-black cast in Orson Welles’ famous production of Macbeth. Helped his generation empathize with black men’s plight in a racist culture through his smash performance of Bigger Thomas onstage. Even played whiteface.
His most famous film role, that of Joe in Lifeboat, is a complex one. The moral center of the story, Joe fails to succumb to mob violence, as the white passengers do. And though his companions have racist moments (the names they use, their shock at his having a wife), they respect him. It would be easy to just credit the characterization to Alfred Hitchcock. But much of the credit goes to Lee himself. He convinced Hitchcock into changing a belittling part into a fascinating one.
Lee’s insistence on dignified roles, paired with his blacklisting, may have given us too few of his films to appreciate (his early death is often attributed to the ban). But what performances they are. The viewers of Body and Soul, Lost Boundaries, Lifeboat, and Cry, the Beloved Country can thank him for selecting and affecting the development of roles that not only revealed the force of his talent, but his integrity in the face of unspeakable odds.
And despite his unjustly forgotten contributions to film, Lee’s influence is still felt in our communities today. Just ask those who’ve benefited from former runaway Jack Geiger’s medical and human rights work. All 17 million of them.
For more on Lee’s life, check out this well-written Wikipedia entry, a This American Life tribute to his kindness, the biography (Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee) by Mona Z. Smith and the following reviews of her text: Blue
, Howard. Rev. of Becoming Something: The Story Of Canada Lee, by Mona Smith. The Black Scholar 35.2 (2005): 65. Print; Gautier
, Amina. Rev. of Becoming Something: The Story Of Canada Lee, by Mona Smith. African American Review 40.2 (2006): 387-389. Print; and McGilligan, Patrick. Rev. of Becoming Something: The Story Of Canada Lee, by Mona Smith. Cinéaste 30.4 (2005): 73-74. Print. Geiger just posted about the situation in Flint.