Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Canada Lee: A Brief Tribute

Does this sound familiar? You have stuff to do. Important Stuff. Then you turn on TCM. And a movie is playing that you have seen many times and you think, okay, I don't need to watch this one again. And then comes a scene you love. And then another. One hundred some-odd minutes later, you are sitting there realizing you haven't done a thing you were supposed to, but you don't care.

Body and Soul. The Siren didn't need to see it again, but then again, she did. The first time she saw it, she loved John Garfield. The second through third or fourth time, James Wong Howe's cinematography killed her. Has there ever been a fight sequence better than the finale? Raging Bull quotes its every aspect, ramps up the realism, sends the blood and sweat flying, but still can't touch it.

But this time the Siren watched, and Canada Lee tore her heart out of her chest. Lee's character, Ben, serves as the ethical anchor for Garfield's ambitious fighter. That wasn't a new role for African Americans in the movies; Mammy serves the same purpose in Gone with the Wind. The role of the black angel on the white character's shoulder persists to this day, as a matter of fact. But Lee reaches beyond the character, to meet Garfield as another man, equally yearning for success, equally bitter about his treatment. Ben's description of what it was like to win a fight, to walk down Lenox Avenue and bask in the admiration, becomes a window into the yearnings of all people for respect. What a shot of adrenaline it must have been in 1947, to see a black man form a genuine friendship with a white man on screen.

What the Siren wouldn't give to see Lee's stage performances as Bigger Thomas or Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.

As a belated Martin Luther King Day post, or early for Black History Month, a bit about the great, tragic Canada Lee. Here is Otto Friedrich:

He became an actor, a passionate actor at a time when blacks were supposed to be amusing...nobody ever forgot seeing him as the punch-drunk fighter in Garfield's Body and Soul. Shortly after that, his name appeared in the mass of hearsay flushed out of the FBI files in the course of the spy trial of Judith Conlon. 'The drivel that has come from the so-called secret files of the FBI,' Lee called it at a press conference in 1949. 'I am not a Communist...I shall continue to help my people gain their rightful place in America.'

That's what they all said. The next time Canada Lee came up for a TV role, he was barred by the sponsor, the American Tobacco Company. Over the next three years, he was barred from about forty shows. 'How long, how long can a man take this kind of unfair treatment?' he asked the editors of Variety.

Friedrich says a dead-broke Lee finally took part in a "public denunciation" of Paul Robeson, but apparently there is some dispute about that. Historian Glenda E. Gill, for example, quotes Lee's wife Frances as saying the actor flatly refused when urged to denounce Robeson (scroll to page 128; the whole excerpt is worth the time). In any event Lee got a part in a British production, Cry, the Beloved Country. He and Sidney Poitier were admitted to South Africa only after director Zoltan Korda applied for permits to bring them along as his indentured servants. Friedrich again:

It was only a temporary reprieve, and the curtain came down again. 'I can't take it any more,' Lee told Walter White of the NAACP after a few more months of unemployment. 'I'm going to get a shoeshine box and sit outside the Astor Theater. My picture is playing to capacity audiences and, my God, I can't get one day's work.' White counseled caution and patience, and Lee, all full of rage and desperation, accepted that counsel. A few months later he was dead, of high blood pressure, at forty-five.
He had such presence--Canada Lee held your gaze, even in a picture like Lifeboat. In that one he is ostentatiously granted a vote on a life-and-death matter, but he refuses to use it, leaving the big choices to the white folks. Playing scenes like that must have stung Lee, a lifelong civil rights activist, but when the camera is on him, he takes back the screen. The scene where he recites the 23rd Psalm could be another of the era's patronizing touches: "Look at the simple spirituality of the Negro--how childlike, how heart-warming." But Lee keeps his head up, his voice calm and sonorous as he becomes, for that moment, the strongest man on the boat. His detractors had one thing right--Lee was a master of subversion.

P.S. A documentary about Canada Lee, featuring interviews with his 86-year-old widow Frances Lee Pearson, is scheduled for release March 8. The Siren hopes it will come to a venue where she can see it.


goatdog said...

I've always thought his "My picture is playing to capacity audiences and, my God, I can't get one day's work" was one of the most heartbreaking quotes about the blacklist. "But Lee keeps his head up" is as fine a summary of his career as anyone could write. This is a great tribute, Siren--thanks.

The Siren said...

The line hits me in the gut, too. John Garfield died less than three weeks later. It makes a movie lover weep to contemplate what they could have done if not hounded to death.

StinkyLulu said...

I've recently been spending time with Lost Boundaries, a strange little 1949 picture, in which Canada Lee has a small supporting role as a NYC police officer.

He's saddled with some tough dialog (most of the "messages" of this message movie) but, golly, he's amazing. The movie's loaded with mediocre performances so he really stands out but even then... Just uncommonly good.

Thanks for this post.

A. Ominous said...

It's important to note that not only are things, now, not much better than they were back then, in many respects they're much worse. Even when Lee was on his cross, Blacks of that era could look forward to so many legal and social victories to come (which, ironically, were catalyzed by the Cold War: America was on its best behaviour, lest Russia take the moral high ground over Jim Crow). Well, now what?

The 21st century is about PR, not protest marches, and how is the Black American doing in that regard? What image of Black America is being sold to the general electorate, and around the world, today?

The fact that Barack Obama is running for president is about as hopeful a sign for the "average" Black man/woman/child in North America as the fact that Michael Jackson was once the king of pop, or that Will Smith is a bigger film star than Tom Cruise. It's not even a glass ceiling, it's a glass floor, and practically an entire race is peering up through it.

Be grateful for the minor mercy that Lee and Robeson, et al, had no crytal balls with which to look fifty or sixty years into the future. They would surely have despaired.

The Siren said...

StinkyLulu, I will try to track that one down. Lee's role sounds similar to the one Robert Young was saddled with in Crossfire.

Steven, thanks for dropping by. As someone who grew up in Alabama after the Civil Rights era, and heard plenty from her many relatives about what it was like in the 1950s and even the late 60s when my parents moved back to Birmingham, I am afraid I can't agree with you on any particular here. Impossible to go back and predict what Lee and Robeson would have made of Obama, but in my majority black, middle-class part of Brooklyn Obama signs are absolutely everywhere. I like it, myself.

A. Ominous said...


Thanks for your response!

Obama is indeed great, but his success as an individual, I'd say, doesn't do much to recoup the devastating losses of the past thirty years. The numbers are grim, and, as ever, the exceptions prove the rule.

"Inner city" murder rates are astronomical (by any reasonable standard); drug problems rampant; education (in real terms) at an all time low. The Black middle class might as well be an entirely different ethnic group, considering the gulf separating it from the proportionately vast underclass. Minor reversals in the trends are often touted as successes for politically expedient purposes, I think. THe overall trends are shocking.

Meanwhile, where are the Paul Robesons and Langston Hughes' to give Black children cultural and *intellectual* goals to dream of? Do you honestly believe that the Black icons of the day serve Black interests better than the Black icons did of half a century ago? I'm far from the only Cassandra (there are enough Black academics taking a similar position), worrying about the post-60s degradation of the Black American Promise.

Consider the barely-possible scenario: Obama becomes president. Then what? Inner city redemption? A return to literacy as the holy grail? Racial divisions healed? Black-on-black violence curbed? The family stabilized and the prisons emptied?

I was a boy around the same time you were a girl, apparently (well, a bit earlier, I'd say: laugh!), and I've lived, not only in urban centers all over the continental U.S., but in a few metropolises of Europe (the better to compare). What I saw back then, in America, was much better than what I see now; thriving, or, at least, stable, neighborhoods of before have become no-go zones. Either that, or gentrified (another kind of "no go zone") and the poorest Blacks have dropped from the edge of the earth.

Not to be contrarian, or bleak by default, but the Big Picture strikes me as far from hopeful... unless, again, we want to concentrate on Exceptionalist clauses in the social contract.

(My belated MLK birthday rant, I'm afraid... thanks for humoring me!)

Rich said...

My devotion to the Siren is boundless and never-ending. Her praise for Canada Lee shines a spotlight on a noble thespian, crushed by evil, smug racism.

She also mentions John Garfield and James Wong Howe. I just wanted to add a personal hero of mine -- Abraham Polonsky, who wrote the magnificent screenplay, and then went on to write and direct one of the great masterpieces of film noir, "Force of Evil." Polonsky was blacklisted right after this, and never "did a Kazan," ratting out his compatriots to keep his swimming pool. In fact, he was feisty as ever tweaking Gadge when Kazan got his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars.

The Siren said...

Steven: Yeah, it's been bad and conceivably could get worse. But I do try to stay positive, corny as that is.

Rich: I need to re-watch Force of Evil. Garfield needs a blogathon, I think. He was such an influential actor. As for Polonsky I admire his refusal to name the scripts he wrote under a "front" but as a film-head I would still love to know which ones.

Greg said...

Great post on a much admired actor. I've enjoyed reading what you and Steven have had to say to each other as well. I too grew up in the South but a few years after the two of you (I've just turned forty). Most of my life I have lived in and around Washington, DC (including Hyattsville and Silver Spring). My current neighborhood resembles many others around here, a good mix of black, white, hispanic, asian. You can't go more than a couple of houses before switching ethnic groups, a far cry from the neighborhoods of our youth.

Anyway, growing up after civil rights and raising children in the DC area I can say this, and Steven, I hope you will take this in the nature intended (which is congenial). I am white and my oldest son and oldest daughter both date black teenagers. It's never raised an eyebrow by anyone. When I speak with their boyfriend/girlfriends, as well as our black neighbors my age or younger they express impatience with the attitudes you're expressing. They see change (as I do) all around them and some of them (my daughter's boyfriend in particular) have said, "If they (the older generation of black people) had their way we'd still be going to seperate schools and sitting in the back of the bus. They refuse to see progress. They get some kind of a high from considering themselves victims." I don't know if I have quoted him exactly but that's a good paraphrase of what he has said. Anyway, I don't know if you've encountered that attitude yourself and if so how you have replied. I can't speak for myself on this matter as Jeremy (that's his name) can but as an outsider looking in I can agree that I see change all around me and if one refuses to see it then one will never experience it.

As far as inner city neighborhoods go I think you're exactly right. They are forgotten places that desperately need help. What solutions do you think we could do to solve those problems? My own liberal bias leads me to believe that cities need to legislate better zoning laws, provide incentives for new businesses and make public transportation more accessible so more money can flow into them but I don't know.

Again all of this is intended as a congenial exchange, not a call out, so I hope it's taken in the spirit intended. Clearly Steven you have thought through this well and often and I'm just trying to offer a different perspective.

And Siren, so very sorry to move the comment away from the great Canada Lee. He was a wonderful actor and I have spent many a moon pondering what those great black actors from the fifties and before could have achieved if given the opportunity.

Also, I have become discouraged that this part of film history is ignored by too many cinephiles. It's one reason I was glad to see this post and glad to see such vigorous commentary on race by Steven. I have posted several times on subjects from "Race" movies to Fredi Washington to racism during the Code Era and always it's the same: My average post gets around 8 to 10 comments. Those posts get one, maybe two. In fact, my Code posts on nudity and language got multiple comments. Then I did the one on race - two commenters (Kimberly and Jim) - that's it. It's discouraging. Sometimes it feels that unless you talk about some new phenomena in the movies, the Oscars (which I do love posting about admittedly) or pop-culture hipness nobody cares. It's an important part of our cultural history and should not be forgotten.

So thanks again for this post, and thanks to TCM for putting this movie on at just the right time to inspire you.

Noel Vera said...

Hurrah, Ms. Campaspe's active again! And glad to hear you say it: Raging Bull's camerawork was tremendous, but in no way exceeds its great original.

Have you seen the Charles Burnett mini retro in TCM a week back? Burnett would be a wonderful choice to direct a Lee biopic.

A. Ominous said...

Hey Guys (or, of course, more accurately: "Hey Siren!")...

It's been four years since our conversation. Would anyone seriously argue "Post-Racialism" now?

Three pieces of rather divergent (yet relevant) analysis:

1. http://bringtheruckus.org/files/OWS_Whiteness_PRINT.pdf

2. http://blackagendareport.com/content/angela-davis-lost-her-mind-over-obama

3. http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=29987

If we can't step outside of our intellectual comfort zones on this matter, Canada Lee's martyrdom will have been in vain. Our hearts are in the right place... let's get our minds there, too.