ruby dee *“If you’re a member of the human race; if you don’t know Ruby Dee it’s shameful.”

That’s how award winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who gained fame on the long running TV series “Law and Order,” feels. She told me that in an exclusive interview at the 90th birthday celebration for Ruby Dee.

It was a grand affair earlier this month at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.  Hundreds of people, many of them celebrities, came out to honor Dee, who was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio.

Dee, a phenomenal woman with that classy sultry voice, has enjoyed a career on stage, motion pictures, and TV that has spanned over seven decades.

The 1961 film “A Raisin in the Sun” that she co-starred with Sidney Poitier, among others, is still a fan and critics favorite. Her movie making gems are not a thing of the past.

In 2008 Dee received her first Academy Award nomination, in the supporting category, for her role as the mother of the gangster played by Denzel Washington in “American Gangster”.

She married Ossie Davis in 1948. This was her second time down the aisle. In 1941 she married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown, who reportedly would have been the only Black Munchkin in the “Wizard of Oz”, if the footage wasn’t cut. They divorced in 1945.

angela bassett & ruby dee

Angela Bassett & Ruby Dee

Angela Bassett and her husband, Courtney Vance, both acclaimed actors, spoke at the event. Bassett recalled how Dee was her muse when she had an on stage competition in 1974.

“I needed a talent. I needed a talent.” Bassett said, gesturing with her hands, to emphasize just what a necessity it was.

She further explained how Dee was her savior after she went into the library of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg Florida.

“I found a 32 inch disc of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee performing the works of Langston Hughes. I put the headphones on my ears. I went to that library day after day after day after day. And I studied every intonation and inflection of your words performing Langston Hughes. And that was my talent at 14. And I won that little award. I stand here and I thank you tonight for all you are and continue to be and thank you for being my first inspiration to become an actor.” Bassett gushed to the applause of everyone there.

She later read a congratulatory birthday message from President Barack Obama.

“Your generation challenged the conscience of our nation and moved us toward justice and equality for all. Your story is an important part of the American narrative and I hope you will look back with joy and pride on the many contributions made on the course of your life. As you celebrate this special occasion, I wish you good health and happiness in the years ahead.”

Dee’s grandson, Muta’Ali Muhammad, screened 30 minutes of his documentary, “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee.”

“One of the questions that her grandson was asking was he an activist. He felt that he wasn’t an activist. His film is just that.” Merkerson observed.

The work is a labor of love that he was motivated to do after losing his grandfather.

Hasna Muhammad, Muta Ali Muhammad, Ruby Dee & Nora Day

Ruby Dee flanked by her daughters Hasna Muhammad and Nora Day, and grandson Muta’Ali Muhammad

Muta’Ali is still in the process of finishing the documentary. He explained why he is doing the project about his grandfather and grandmother whom he calls Gram Ruby.

Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee is a documentary that showcases the powerful journey a young man goes on when he delves into the lives of his grandparents, who just happen to be Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; and happened to have lived wonderful lives in areas of love, marriage, and art, black culture and activism.”

Dee and Davis were married for 56 years. But their fairy tale union ended when he died of heart failure in 2005 while filming the movie, “Retirement,” in Miami. Davis was 87.

Family members talked about his grandson, Jihaad Muhammad, who found Davis lifeless in his hotel room. Muhammad relived the tragic day in graphic detail.

“Felt his body. It was stiff. Knew he was gone. Put a sheet over his body.”

That part of the documentary educed sadness from most people at the screening, more so for those, like Roscoe Orman, who knew the family.

“I guess the most touching moment for me was the description by the grandson of the last moments of Ossie’s life and his transition and carrying the burden of that news to the family. It was really just one of the just moving moments I’ve ever experienced.  I knew Ossie very well, you know, I’ll never forget the moment when I first heard the news. It brought it all back when I saw that clip.”

Orman is perhaps best known for playing Gordon on the PBS series Sesame Street.

Dee and Davis, recipients of the Presidential National Medal of Arts in 1995, were recognized not only for their stellar acting but also for their fearless activism.

“I’ve been walking picket lines since I could walk.” Dee exclaimed in the documentary.

Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins liked the fact that the film was a family affair.

“I think how wonderful it is that this is being done by her grandchildren. The fact that I am a grandfather, I really appreciated that. Ruby continues to be a remarkable, remarkable woman.”

(See more in video below.)

tene' croom & s epatha merkerson

Tene’ Croom & S. Epatha Merkerson

Tene’ Croom conducted exclusive interviews with S. Epatha Merkerson, Muta’Ali Muhammad, Roscoe Orman, Rosie O’Donnell and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

Reach Tene’ at or [email protected]