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For many, the allure of a life in the arts stems from the possibility of becoming a legend. The right role and the right story can permanently catapult an actor into the public consciousness.
For Ruby Dee, the iconic actress and civil rights activist, her legend stemmed not just from her break-through roles and wonderful performances, but also from the important part she played off-screen in shaping America’s civil rights movement and fighting for equality up until her death last Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Dee was 91 years old.
Born in 1922, Dee was just 18 when she landed her first role in a Harlem production of On Strivers Row. From those humble beginnings, she went on to multiple roles on Broadway, television, and in film, starring opposite such heavy-hitters as Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and James Earl Jones.
She was the first black woman ever to play a lead role at the American Shakespeare Festival, or on such popular soap operas as Peyton Place and Guiding Light. Her acting achievements earned her an Obie Award, a Drama Desk Award, five Emmy nominations (with one win for Decoration Day), a Grammy, two Screen Actors Guild awards, the NAACP Image Award, Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, and the National Civil Rights Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Then, at the age of 83, she garnered an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in 2007’s American Gangster, playing the mother of Denzel Washington.
As important as Dee’s acting career was to her, it always went hand-in-hand with her activism. In fact, she saw no separation between the two, commenting once that if actors could be image makers, “Why can’t we image makers become peacemakers, too?” When she met Ossie Daivs in 1945 and they married in 1948, she found a lifelong partner in her devotion to both the arts and activism.
The two were married for 56 years, becoming one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic couples. Together, they made great strides for civil rights, forming close friendships with Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Malcolm X, just to name a few. Dee famously emcee’d the 1963 March on Washington. Together, she and Davis received the National Medal of Arts in 1995, were inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1989, and received SAG Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2000.
Davis passed away in 2005.
Proving what a special place Dee held in the heart of the entertainment community, she was thanked twice during the recent Tony Awards on June 8, 2014, first by six-time winner Audra MacDonald, and then by Kenny Leon, the winning director of A Raisin in the Sun. Both were influenced by Dee’s talent and passion.
What sort of mindset led to Dee’s lifelong success and contentment? As she said in a 1988 interview regarding her and Davis:
“We believe in honesty. We believe in simplicity. We believe in a good breakfast when we can get it. We believe in not going heavily into debt. We believe in education. We believe in love. We believe in the family. We believe in Black history, and we believe in involvement.”
To read more about Ruby Dee, please check out the following articles:
By Digital Film Academy Blog Manager Sara McDermott Jain