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Reflections on the Film Career of Legendary Actor and Activist Ruby Dee

Reflections on the Film Career of Legendary Actor and Activist Ruby Dee

Looking back at an artist’s career that
spans more than sixty years is a tall order. Ruby Dee tended her characters in
a way that accessed their humanity – as all actors ought to do – but at a time
when black characters weren’t given three-dimensional material especially for
black women who were mostly being offered roles lacking in complexity,
stereotypes mostly. Film and theater historians will likely have to duke it out
as to which category best suits Ms. Dee as she worked in film, television, and
stage. And yet it was Dee’s theater impulses that came to bear whether the
cameras were recording or not. Ruby Dee along with her husband, Ossie Davis,
also an actor and creative collaborator, worked in Hollywood at different times
of their career but were never a part of the scene. They were true thespians,
writers, armchair intellectuals, social activists – successors to Paul Robeson.

A quiet powerhouse: Ms. Dee was
instrumental in helping Alex Haley get his famous family saga, Roots, on
television. Memorable films that define Ms. Dee’s range as an actor and
performer include “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Buck and Preacher,”
“Purlie Victorious,” and her television series on PBS, “With
Ruby and Ossie,” to name a few. What’s so remarkable about Dee’s career is
the fact that she stayed culturally relevant and working throughout her entire
life. This hasn’t been the case for black actors of her generation, let alone
black actresses. In Ms. Dee’s able hands, we have a finely crafted collection
of black women who possess nuance and all of the colors of humanity delivered
as only she could.

Last week in the New York Times obit,
the writer Bruce Weber said, “she was always a critical favorite, though
not often cast as a leady lady.”

While this is technically true, Ms. Dee’s
screen time whether for five minutes or 30 seconds always managed to eclipse
the performances of her co-stars. The question of why Ms. Dee was never casted
as a leading lady is an interesting one. Perhaps, Ms. Dee found more freedom in
being a character actor. Playing unforgettable women who steal the scene. I’m
reminded of the moment in “American Gangster” (2007) when Ruby Dee slaps Denzel
. Who could say that Ms. Dee did not own that scene, or any of
the others?

Here are some highlights from Ms. Dee’s
filmography that anoints her as a supporting actor who “leads.”

“A Raisin in the Sun” (1961)

The play that integrated Broadway also
happens to be the role that brought Ms. Dee to a mainstream audience and for
which she will mostly be remembered. The character of Ruth Younger (the wife of
Walter Lee played by Sidney Poitier) is overburdened and heavy with longing.
Ruby Dee captures all of the nuances of this character in a way that inspires
empathy from the audience. A few years after Raisin debuted on Broadway it
became a Hollywood film,
starring the same ensemble cast.

“Buck and Preacher” (1972)

It’s the end of the Civil War. Black
folks on horses with guns traveling West with newly freed African Americans.
This is a classic and a required watching before Django. Ruby Dee delivers
another scene stealing performance here,
without uttering a single word.

“With Ossie and Ruby” (1980)

This PBS variety show is a
lesser-known gem in Ruby’s body of work, co-hosted with her husband
Ossie Davis. The performances, poetry readings and interviews were unscripted. It is apparent that many of her guests were either personal
friends or artists she admired. Check out her show with Gil Scott-Heron, Odetta, and her reading of Carolyn
Rodger’s poem
“When the Revolution Came.” Here we get a glimpse of Ruby Dee
as not only a lover of poetry but a solid poet herself.

“Do the Right Thing” (1989)

Ruby Dee plays a minor role, Mother
Sister, in Spike Lee’s groundbreaking “Do the Right Thing.” The
film, heavily influenced by Greek Tragedy, happens in a day, the hottest day of
the summer, where racial tensions come to a crescendo. Mother Sister’s
temperamental, hard-to-get counterpoint to The Mayor (Ossie Davis) introduces
these two legends to a new generation of film. Mother-Sister appears callous.
Perhaps, even broken but is a part of the bustling tight-knitted community. In Mother-Sister’s
character we have a prototype for everyday black women elders in the community
who keep an eye out from their window to ensure that negative elements stay at
a distance.  

“Jungle Fever” (1991)

Ms. Dee makes another appearance in the
growing cannon of Spike Lee’s film about Black New York in “Jungle Fever.” Dee
plays Lucinda Purify, the loving wife of The Good Reverend Doctor Purify
(played by Ossie Davis), and mother of Gator Purify (Samuel L. Jackson) and
Fliper Purify (Wesley Snipes). Although Ms. Dee takes up a relatively short
amount of screen time, she performs without fail an elderly black mother who
would do anything for her drug-addicted son, Gator. Without doubt, Spike Lee
makes a critique on both the parents who seems to have failed their son, Gator.

“Having Our Say” (1999)

In 1999 Ruby Dee co-stars with Diahann
Carroll with the made-for-TV adaptation of the memoir “Having Our Say,”
a chronicle of two sisters who live to be over 100 years old and in their
stories we learn a fascinating uplift story of the African American family.
It’s difficult not to believe that Diahann Carroll and Ruby Dee at some point
in their careers were rivals as there were so few roles for black actors when
Ruby Dee was starting out. And yet this film brings these two legendary women
together. The careers of Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll could be the subject of a
dissertation. These two actresses were both doing recovery work of the image of
the black woman in many of the roles that they chose in quite different ways.

“American Gangster” (2007)

One of the realities for most actresses
over a certain age – of any color – is that they will age into playing mostly
somebody’s mother, typically without any dimension or backstory. Throughout
most of Ruby Dee’s career, she played the suffering wife, much to her chagrin.
Nevertheless, at the ripe age of 85, Ruby Dee gave a brilliant performance as
the mother of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in “American Gangster”
for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Watch how she steals the scene,
slapping Denzel Washington, making the entire audience sit up straight in their

What will be Ms. Dee’s Legacy?
Undoubtedly Ruby Dee has made her impression on generations of actors,
performers, and social activists. If I were a betting man, I’d say Audra
McDonald is her true heir. She’s played a younger Ruby Dee in “Having Our
Say” (1999) and is almost identical in terms of theatricality when winning
awards. What most heartening to know is that Ruby Dee, like her husband,
weren’t the Hollywood kind of black stars, their feet were always grounded in
causes and community.

Take a look at this clip of Iconoclasts
where Alicia Keys interviews Ruby Dee.

Ali is a culture critic who lives in Baltimore. He teaches at Goucher College
and has a collection of poems debuting in the spring of 2015.  Find him on

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