The Academy Award nomination she received in 2009 for her role in American Gangster was long overdue. Decades overdue. She was in her mid-80s then and although she didn’t take home the golden statue, the fact remains that only an actor of her caliber could make a two-hours-plus movie her own by way of eight minutes of screen time. That was the power of Ruby Dee.
Though she was small in stature, her presence was always larger than life. No matter their circumstance, she infused a sense of truth into her characters, so much so that you can still feel the hope and angst in her portrayal of Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. That role, which she breathed life into on Broadway and on film, is what many people remember her for, but really, it was just the tip of the iceberg. As an artist, she excelled in every medium – from film and television and the stage to literature, radio and screenwriting. Her body of work speaks for itself.
Born in Cleveland, she was raised in Harlem from the time she was a toddler. That’s where she found her calling. While studying at Hunter College, she joined the American Negro Theater and in 1945, met her beloved Ossie while rehearsing for the Broadway production of Jeb. Ironically, it wasn’t love at first site – not for her, anyway. She admitted that her Georgia-born co-star was quite the ‘country bumpkin’ back then, but that didn’t matter to him. He was already smitten. “I liked her right away,” Ossie noted in their joint autobiography, With Ruby & Ossie: In This Life Together, which was published in 1998 and coincided with their 50th wedding anniversary.
Ossie and Ruby married in 1948, on a Thursday. Together, they built a life and created a family. They also stood on the front lines of the civil rights movement. They felt that it was their duty to be a part of the push forward, to make a way for those who would follow behind them. Along with the NAACP, they supported the efforts of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and even served as masters of ceremony for the March on Washington. Sadly, it would be Ossie who stood and delivered the eulogy at Brother Malcolm’s funeral. What a legacy.
The stories they told in their art were as rich as the life they were living – from hosting their own radio show, The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour, and their early work in Purlie Victorious and Buck and the Preacher to the Spike Lee joints they ignited, Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. Along with her collaborations with Ossie, Ruby was also a force all her own. She shared her musings in her 1988 memoir, My One Good Nerve, which she later adapted into a one-woman show. Our babies even got a chance to enjoy Ms. Ruby’s talents when she voiced the character, Alice the Great, on the animated series, Little Bill.
When Ossie passed away in 2005, we all prayed for her. We worried about her, too. But she marched on and honored him by continuing to create. That was her purpose. Two years after her Oscar nomination, she was presented with the Living Legend Award by Black Girls Rock! She was beaming. It was as if she really knew that she’d put in the work, that she’d made a difference. For us, she exemplified excellence and longevity. She represented, consistently. Nobody did it like Ruby Dee.