Lee made his screen debut in Keep Punching (1939), a film about boxing. Perhaps his most famous film role was in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), in which he played a sailor. Lee insisted on changing his dialogue, which had been a semi-comical dialect typical of racist films. In 1947, he played a supporting role in Robert Rossen's Body and Soul, another boxing picture. In 1949, he took another supporting role in Lost Boundaries, a drama about passing. Lee's last film role was in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).
As an actor, Lee came into contact with many of the leading progressive figures in the country. Langston Hughes, for instance, wrote two brief plays for Lee; these were submitted to the Theater Project, but their criticism of racism in America was deemed too controversial, and neither was staged. Lee spoke to schools, sponsored various humanitarian events, and began speaking directly against the existing segregation in America’s Armed Forces, while simultaneously acknowledging the need to win the Second World War.
By the late 1940s, the rising tide of anti-Communism had made many of his earlier contacts politically dangerous. In 1949, the trade journal Variety stated that under no circumstance was he to be used in American Tobacco’s televised production of a radio play he had recently starred in because he was “too controversial.”
In the same year, the FBI offered to clear Lee’s name if he would publicly call Paul Robeson a Communist. Lee refused and responded by saying, “All you’re trying to do is split my race.” According to newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, Lee stated that he intended to come out and “publicly blast Paul Robeson.” However, the fact that the friendship between the two actors remained until Lee's death suggests that Robeson put no faith in Winchell's claim.
At the height of the Hollywood blacklist, Lee managed to find work in 1950 as the star of a British film Cry, The Beloved Country, for which both he and Sidney Poitier were smuggled into South Africa as indentured servants in order to play their roles as African ministers. The film’s message of universal brotherhood stands as Lee's final work towards this aim; after it, the blacklist prevented him from getting work. Scheduled to appear in Italy to begin production on a filmed version of Othello, he was repeatedly notified that his passport “remained under review.”Following his death, rumors persisted that he did come out and call Robeson a Communist. As he was unable to defend himself, Lee’s name remained sullied and overlooked as history marched forward into the era of Civil Rights.
Website for the documentary 'Blacklist: Recovering the Life of Canada Lee
Canada Lee's Homepage