*There are movie stars and then there are thespians. Ruby Dee, who died at the age of 91 at her home in New Rochelle, New York, was one of the latter.
In Hollywood circles, Ms. Dee and her late husband, actor Ossie Davis, were truly one of the most significant creative couples in the history of film and theater. They’ve often been compared to Tracy and Hepburn, and that’s a fair assessment. Davis and Dee, like their Oscar-winning peers, had the kind of on-screen chemistry that was something more than their fans could comprehend. It was poignantly magical.
Tracy and Hepburn, however, left it all on the screen and in the tabloids. Davis and Dee, who were married for 57 years before Mr. Davis’ death in 2005, used their fame to advance the cause of Civil Rights in the ‘60s. They, along with Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr. and others, were major components in the Hollywood posse that supported Martin Luther King Jr. and his soldiers on the front lines.
That singular sacrifice during this country’s most turbulent decade might have cost them some opportunities in Hollywood, but activism endeared them to a grateful nation.
When I met Ms. Dee in Oakland, Calif. in 1989 I was so mesmerized by her raspy voice that I was almost too nervous to interview her. My own instrument, by comparison, seemed so weak and insignificant. Ms. Dee, however, was as warm and gracious as a den mother–especially when I mentioned I had met her son Guy.
“You know Guy? He’s such a dear son,” she said. “Tell me, what do you think of him?”
I was more interested in sharing my thoughts about her. My first memory of Ms. Dee on screen was in A Raisin in the Sun. She played Sidney Poitier’s empathetic wife Ruth Younger—a real stand by your man woman even when he screwed up.
Although I was too young to fully understand the context of Lorraine Hansberry’s masterful screenplay, I knew then that Ms. Dee, along with Poitier, Claudia McNeil and especially Diana Sands were all pretty damn special. To this day, I don’t think I’ve seen a more powerful ensemble on screen.
They lit it up.
Throughout her career Ms. Dee was one of those players who made everyone around her better—even her own husband, whom she met in 1945 when they were both appearing on stage in Jeb. They were particularly entertaining when Spike Lee cast them in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever during the ‘90s. Davis and Dee didn’t work together that often but their careers were so entwined that the Screen Actors Guild rewarded the couple with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Ms. Dee, who was feted by the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004 with her husband, also won numerous other awards including an Emmy, Grammy, Obie and the SAG actor for her role in 2007’s American Gangster.
After seeing that film I convinced my then employer, MSNBC.com, that it was time that Ms. Dee get some Oscar love. When I rang her a few weeks before the film was released, her daughter warned me that her mom was in the early stages of dementia. When Ms. Dee got on the phone there were times when she was incoherent but she was crystal clear when it came to making her point. We talked about the new days and the old and I think she genuinely appreciated talking to someone who was truly cognizant of her gifts as an actor and as an activist.
When I asked her what she thought about all the Oscar buzz she stumbled over her words a bit but admitted she was very honored for the consideration even though her role as Denzel Washington’s mother was so small it might have gone uncredited had she not been Ruby Dee.
“Maybe that’s the key to winning,” she joked.
Well, if you put it out there it will come to pass. At 83 she was nominated and was the sentimental favorite, but Ms. Dee didn’t win the golden boy.
The last time I saw her was four years ago at a pre-Oscar luncheon celebrating Mo’Nique’s nomination for Precious. I happened to be outside when she arrived and when I followed her inside, a kind of hush came over the room. Oprah Winfrey stopped talking, Mo’Nique began crying and Alfre Woodard ran interference making sure everyone respected Ms. Dee’s space as well as her position. It was akin to Queen Elizabeth making an appearance at Parliament.
This was yet another role Ms. Dee had assumed over the years—the grand dame. It was one she seemingly embraced with more humility than pride.
I kind of knew then that we might not be sharing space on the planet that much longer. With old folks sometimes you can just see it in their eyes when they’re about done with this old world. Ms. Dee was still working in the profession that she loved but was without the comfort and support of her longtime partner.
It will be interesting to see how the media will cover the death of this entertainment and Civil Rights icon in the next few days. The New York Daily News already made the first blunder by referring to her as “One of the greatest BLACK actresses.” That’s just shameful and disrespectful. I sincerely doubt that Meryl Streep’s obit will say that she was one of “the greatest WHITE actresses.” The irony is that this was said about someone who fought the good fight so that her life and legacy would not be determined by the color of her skin.
I’m sure, however, that now that Ms. Dee has concluded her final act on Earth, she’s relishing her new role on a different stage. In this scene she’ll know no more pain, rejection or loneliness now that she’s been reunited with her favorite costar.
I know they’re up there doing the right thing.
Miki Turner is an award-winning photojournalist, author and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.