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

(Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571211429)

"Becoming Something, Mona Z. Smith's biography of Lee, is a mission accomplished. Her goal is bringing back Lee's fabulous personal journey from obscurity. Armed with extensive research and huge files hoarded by his widow, Smith has put together a richly detailed and mostly persuasive narrative....Smith, herself a playwright, does even greater service by recovering for us Canada Lee as a brilliant stage actor....The revelations of Smith's narrative are many. Who remembers the brightness with which Lee's reputation shone in the world of entertainment during the 1940s; his New York playboy period; the nightclub he kept running for many years; his occasional stints as a swing band leader; his friendships with Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ed Sullivan and Welles; his many admiring girlfriends? But the book also shows us an unfamiliar Lee, whose social consciousness is always developing and whose activism is always vigorous....Becoming Something does an important thing. It makes possible much more discussion and reflection on a life that still has lessons to teach us." Clyde Taylor, Washington Post READ FULL REVIEW


"...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. Gregory McNamee, Reuters/Hollywood Reporter READ FULL REVIEW


Smith's lucid, well-researched and sympathetic but not uncritical life of Canada Lee should go some distance toward reviving the memory of this activist native son. Maurice Isserman, Chicago Tribune READ FULL REVIEW


This is one of the most poignantly written biographies I have ever read. Some biographies have perfect pitch. This is one of them. Carl Rolly, New York Sun READ FULL REVIEW


"A successful prizefighter whose career ended abruptly, Lee went from being the lord of the ring to the toast of the town when he discovered acting. Arguably one of the greatest black actors of his time, Lee's name today is a hardly mentioned in the annals of Broadway and Hollywood stardom, yet Lee broke new ground in his relentless pursuit of roles that would defy the stereotypical portraits of blacks as toadies and lackeys. An indefatigable champion of human rights, Lee's passion for justice and equality drew the attention of the HUAC, where such liberal causes were synonymous with communism. His placement on the dreaded blacklist ended Lee's career, and his early death is often attributed to the McCarthy witch hunt. Indeed, Lee's story is as tragic as those he portrayed on stage: a meteoric rise, a precipitous fall, and betrayal by people he trusted. Smith wondrously brings to life a man whose impact on American theater and culture was far too great to be allowed to lapse into obscurity." Carol Haggas Booklist


"Mona Z. Smith has used her considerable gifts as a dramatist and storyteller to illuminate the astonishing odyssey of Canada Lee, a man who challenged racism in every quarter, here and abroad, for thirty years, and usually prevailed. Here at last is a full length portrait of this forgotten hero." Daniel Mark Epstein, author of Lincoln and Whitman and Nat King Cole


"A biography of Canada Lee has long been overdue. The story of his dramatic rise and fall is as important as it is moving, and Mona Z. Smith tells it with theatrical flair. This is a first-rate book." Hazel Rowley, author of Richard Wright: The Life and Times


"Canada Lee's distinguished acting career was curtailed and virtually written out of theatrical history during the McCarthy era. A jockey, boxer, and band leader before turning to acting, he gained fame in numerous venues -- on Broadway in Orson Welles's production of Native Son, on screen in Lifeboat, and on various radio shows. Lee spoke often and eloquently against racial discrimination and supported humanitarian causes, but his activism earned him the label of radical and worse from the House Un-American Activities Committee, the FBI, and, sadly, even his one-time friend, columnist Ed Sullivan. By the time of his death at 45, his career, health, finances, and honor were all but shattered. Smith, a former reporter for the Miami Herald who wrote a play about Lee under the same title, completed years of research and interviews to support her premise that Lee was the victim of unjust accusations fueled by the political climate. She makes a convincing case in this groundbreaking biography, providing a thought-provoking example of the tragic impact of a nation's and an art form's paranoia." (Recommended for most libraries.) starred review in Library Journal, June 15


"A talented actor and pioneering civil rights activist, Lee died in 1952 at age 45-technically from uremia, but in the eyes of many, as investigative journalist and playwright Smith shows, from the stress of being blacklisted. Lee's career was extraordinary. Leaving home at 13 to become a racetrack jockey, he became a boxer, dabbled in music and was drawn into acting by the Depression-era Federal Theater Project. He was in Hollywood films, including Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and Rossen's Body and Soul (1947). Smith deftly depicts New York's theater scene, showing how Lee became one of the first African-Americans to gain acceptance in white theater, and thoroughly documents Lee's outspoken support for civil rights. Lee's speechmaking caught the attention of Cold War Red-baiters, and in 1949, he started hearing rumors he'd been blacklisted. While he did work in one final film-1951's Cry, the Beloved Country-the strain of not being able to work or support his family may have irritated his hypertension, leading to kidney failure. Smith's admiration for Lee-his artistry, his desegregation campaigns, his generosity toward the needy, his fellowship with other African-American artists-is so overwhelming that Lee emerges as a two-dimensional character. Still, students of African-American, theater and Cold War history will find this a valuable reference." Publisher's Weekly


"Restore[s] a heroic figure to his rightful place in American cultural and political history." Kirkus


Purchase books and movies

Who was Canada Lee?   |  About the Author   |  Scholarship Fund   |  Appearances   |   Reviews   |  Press Release   |  Books/Movies   |  Home

To book a signing or appearance: info@canadalee.com  |  Press Info: press@canadalee.com