Many people today have never heard of Canada Lee (1907-1952), which is very strange since he was a major acting force during the 1940s. No less a figure than Orson Welles recognized Lee’s brilliance, which was on full display in Welles’ 1941 Broadway production of “Native Son.” This triumph led to more starring roles on Broadway, which made Lee one of the very few African-Americans to achieve theatrical icon status during the 1940s.
As an African-American, Lee’s choice of film roles were weak. While his refusal to play demeaning, subservient characters limited his cinematic output, he nonetheless found quality roles that transcended racial stereotyping. His performances in “Lifeboat,” “Body and Soul,” “Lost Boundaries” and “Cry, the Beloved Country” showed a depth and scope of extraordinary talent.
Tragically, the McCarthy-era blacklist killed Lee’s career and, ultimately, took his life. Over the years, Lee’s groundbreaking work became largely forgotten and his star was relegated to footnote status in screen history.
However, a documentary that is currently in production is seeking to resurrect Lee’s importance. Kenny Kilfara, whose previous film work has been in short subjects, is making his feature-length directing debut with “Blacklist: Recovering the Life of Canada Lee.” Kilfara, a filmmaking and interactive-narrative instructor at the University of Georgia, spoke with Film Threat about this unique work-in-progress.
What inspired you to make a film about Canada Lee?
The short answer is: the love of a remarkable woman. The initial impetus for this film, however, is about as random an occurrence as how Canada Lee became an actor. I was walking to lunch one day during my tenure as a graduate student at the University of Georgia, when my mentor, Dr. Allen Partridge, said to me ‘Kenny, I have this idea, and you’re either going to love me or hate me.’ He went on to explain briefly about a man named Canada Lee, an actor of repute I’d never heard of, and how Canada’s widow, Frances Lee Pearson was living just an hour away in Atlanta.
As I began to do some preliminary research, I became intrigued by the fact I had never heard of Canada Lee. A short while later, I gave Frances a call and asked if she would like to meet. It was at that initial meeting that I realized this was a story that needed to be told. Frances was a firebrand and the perfect advocate for Canada – but at 83, and legally blind, she was fighting her third case of pneumonia that year. So, despite my inexperience, I immediately began interviewing her. Thankfully, she survived those cases of pneumonia and over the ensuing years, we became close friends and Frances unraveled a remarkable and tragic tale.
While she died in 2005, I know she felt relief knowing the restoration of Lee’s legacy has begun. I’d say it’s her passion that fuels me to tell Canada’s story. Thankfully, several things have fallen into place since I was an aspiring graduate student. Over the years I’ve been working on this, I befriended two gentlemen who have since joined my team, co-director Tim Nackashi (co-director/producer of “Dirty Work”) and cinematographer/associate producer Jim Virga (director of “Dancing on Mother Earth”). Having a chance to work on an historically significant story with fun, talented people is certainly inspiring.
During his career, Canada Lee only made a handful of films. Did he intentionally turn down roles that he considered demeaning? And why did he only appear in one of the so-called “race films” starring an all-black cast?
Canada’s limited film resume has to do with two major factors: His refusal to take demeaning roles offered to his black contemporaries and his eventual blacklisting. Following his meteoric rise to celebrity thanks to the 1941 Broadway hit, “Native Son,” Lee was looked at by his peers in the black community as a role model. I think Ossie Davis said it best; he was an artist “who represented black manhood. Aggressive, proud, and dangerous… a new kind of black man.”
Being seen as such, Canada felt he was given an opportunity and a second lease on life (having been blinded in his right eye during a boxing match, which ended his earlier career in pugilism). As such, he actively sought roles that were empowering and inspiring to African-Americans, and off the screen, Canada spoke largely about the importance of education as a means to empowerment and the importance of universal brotherhood.
As to his limited appearance in the so-called “race films,” I can only speculate, as I haven’t come across any concrete evidence. As Frances recounted to me, the one “race film” he did appear in, “Keep Punchin’,” was a film Canada omitted from his resume for most of his life because he was embarrassed by what his character, Speedy, did in the film – he tries to convince the main character to pursue a boxing career rather than accept an opportunity to study at a prestigious university.
Canada Lee was blacklisted, yet during that awful period he was able to star in the 1951 British production of “Cry, the Beloved Country.” Did his involvement in that film hurt its American commercial release?
Not to my knowledge. The film was well received in the US. Canada had hoped it would open the door way to more work in the states, and possibly garner him an Oscar, but very little work followed. In prominent circles, Canada received high praise for his work and the film was hailed as a breakthrough, but he only worked twice more in the states, and began performing one man shows. The blacklist was a horrible phantom menace that decimated many lives and careers, as is known, but what makes me curious about Canada’s case is that he’s never actually mentioned as being a Communist or a Fellow Traveler. Canada’s name doesn’t appear in Red Channels and he was never called to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee, yet he lost numerous roles because he was “too controversial.”
Financing a documentary can be tricky. How have you been able to keep this production financially solvent?
Do you want the honest answer? Um… barely. There are a lot of things working against me. As this is my first feature film, it’s difficult to establish street cred. People want to give money to those they can trust to produce good results, and I can’t blame them. Thankfully, I have the wisdom of my co-director Tim Nackashi to pull from, as well as a great team of advisors. Credit cards have helped. So has the Pacific Pioneer Fund, that recently gave us a generous grant.
So far, it’s been lots of grant applications, many close calls (some with major funders), but it seems things have finally begun to turn. We’ve received donations from a few private funders and we’re trying to reach out to others. It seems like the more word spreads about this story, people want to see it told. We’re right at that tipping point of critical mass, where all we need is one more piece to fall in place (an interview with a prominent black actor or another generous grant). You don’t know any “financially solvent” philanthropists, do you?
This is your first feature film after making several short films. What have been the challenges from moving up from the short genre to feature-length production?
Off the top of my head, story structure and the amount of footage I have to pull from have been overwhelming. I’ve never had to handle so much material at one time. It’s overwhelming to try and make a coherent and engaging story out of hours upon hours of interviews. There’s always a dichotomy between the story you intend to tell and the story that is actually there, and while that’s an inherent part of a documentary filmmaking at any length, it almost feels exponentially harder in a feature.
Financing a feature is certainly a trickier road to navigate (I know that’s not breaking news). The shorts I’ve made in the past were small enough that they were self-funded, and this is also the first archival documentary I’ve undertaken – that has opened a whole new world money issues for me. A documentary lives or dies on the filmmakers ability to gain access to its subject matter. With an archival documentary, my ability to tell Canada Lee’s story hinders predominately on my ability to raise enough money to get the rights to tell it, not my actual ability to get access to it.
That is to say, I can get a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” (I own it on DVD), but I can’t show you the majesty and strength of Canada’s acting ability without enough cash to pay for access. So, in the midst of the creative struggle to identify the emerging story (from what the interviewees say, what I discover about Canada Lee, etc.), I’m forced to keep in mind the very practical fact that I might not get the rights to use certain bits of footage, and that’s just something I have to roll with.
When do you expect your new film to be completed? And what is the release strategy?
That’s up to funding. We’d like to wrap this baby up by next year. I think that’s very doable, and from there, I’ve had interest from some potential venues, notably PBS, the Berlin Film Festival, and Slamdance. I think a wide television release makes the most sense for this film. This is the type of story that millions of Americans need to be aware of. It’s history, our history, and it needs to be embraced not only as a warning against what unchecked power can do, but as a vehicle of inspiration.
Canada Lee lived a remarkable life fraught with obstacles at every turn, and his ability to face life with dignity and humility should be emulated. Apart from a wide TV release, I have a goal of traveling the country and showing the film to people of all ages and talking about Lee. As a character in history, I think Lee’s legacy should be used to engage people instead of be forgotten and dismissed. I intend to use the documentary as a tool to promote what Lee did while he was alive, understanding, respect for all walks of life and the importance of education as a means of true empowerment.
(“Blacklist: Recovering the Life of Canada Lee” can be previewed online at www.blacklistthemovie.com)