Becoming Something   Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee
by Mona Z. Smith

(Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571211429)

Reviews - Reuters
Book Review: 'The Story of Canada Lee'
by Gregory McNamee
Thu Oct 7, 7:36 PM ET Reviews - Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When prizefighter-turned-actor Canada Lee first gained attention for his performance as Bigger Thomas in Orson Welles' 1940 stage production of "Native Son," he was favorably compared to another renowned black actor of the time.

Ed Sullivan, then a theater critic, exulted, "Lee is the first top-flight athlete since Paul Robeson ... to make the grade with the drama critics."

At the end of the decade, federal authorities would be comparing Lee to Robeson, too. In those early years of the Cold War, both were branded as communist sympathizers, and both were blacklisted, barred from working onstage or onscreen.

The FBI (news - web sites) had a deal for Lee, biographer Mona Z. Smith writes in "Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee": "Come out against Robeson," agents told him, "and your name will be in the clear." To which Lee nobly replied, "I may not agree with everything that Robeson says, but I'll be damned if you're going to get me to fight another great American Negro."

Lee had reason to think himself great. Born in 1907 with the resonant name of Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata, he lived only 45 years, and he played in only five films, from 1939-51. Yet most of those films made an impression on viewers; even today, Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," Zoltan Korda's "Cry, the Beloved Country" and Robert Rossen's "Body and Soul" regularly make the rounds of the classic-movie channels.

His stage work was even more impressive, even groundbreaking, as when Lee played the role of the Spaniard Bosola in John Webster's tragedy "The Duchess of Malfi" -- and in whiteface, no less. Critics wondered over this, but most concluded, in the words of one, that "theoretically there is no reason why a colored actor should not play any role for which he is qualified."

Lee fought against racism in many arenas, speaking publicly against the segregation of the military during World War II, denouncing Jim Crow laws and defying convention by marrying a white woman. He took that fight to Hollywood, too, as when he demanded that Hitchcock revise the script for "Lifeboat": "When they first handed me the part of Joe I read it over and found 'yessir yessir yessir,' about every other word," Lee recalled. "I'd rather dig ditches for a living than act some foolish parody."

But, writes Smith, even though Lee helped influence a generation of black actors who, after him, were able to move away from servile or comic roles for weightier things, he was not so successful himself. Hitchcock, for instance, promised changes but did not make them, though he kept the scene in which Lee recites Psalm 23, "perhaps the first in movie history in which a black person reads a Bible verse in standard English."

Lee has been forgotten in part, Smith argues, because African Americans are so often overlooked in our histories generally. But, of course, many actors of Lee's time, of whatever background or origin, have been forgotten, still victims of McCarthyism all these years later. How many younger viewers remember Robert Ryan, who resisted the witch hunt, as opposed to those who can recognize Humphrey Bogart, who caved in to it?

Whatever the case, Smith's well-crafted biography does due honor to Canada Lee, a man who deserves recognition not only as a pioneering activist, but also as a superb actor.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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