Ruby Dee, the legendary actress, poet, and Civil Rights activist, passed away on Wednesday in New York. She was 91.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace, the Harlem native was a dynamo on stage and screen, starring in the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun, winning Obie and Drama Desk Awards for the play Boesman and Lena, and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as the feisty mother to Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, in the 2007 film American Gangster.
She was also a trailblazer who paved the way for young African-American actors and filmmakers to break through during the height of segregation. Dee was married to Ossie Davis, the actor, activist, and WWII veteran, from 1948 until his death in 2005. The pair appeared in 11 stage productions and five films together, including Davis’s first feature film, 1959’s No Way Out, which also starred Sidney Poitier, and later, in the Spike Lee films Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. In 2004, Dee and Davis were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, who described the duo as “one of the most revered couples of the American stage, two of the most prolific and fearless artists in American culture. As individuals and as a team they have created profound and lasting work that has touched us all. With courage and tenacity they have thrown open many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.”
Indeed, both Dee and Davis were prominent activists in the Civil Rights movement, protesting the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and later participating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963.
The loss of Davis in 2005 was tough on Dee, who sat right by his coffin at the funeral, which featured tributes by Bill Clinton and Maya Angelou. “He belonged to us. He exists in us. We can be, and be more, every day more. Larger, kinder, truer, more honest, more courageous, and more loving because Ossie Davis existed and belonged to all of us,” said Angelou.
On Thursday afternoon, filmmaker Spike Lee paid tribute to Dee with the following open letter on Instagram, as well as a collection of photos:
“People, I Just Found Out The Loss Of Spiritual Mother, The Late, Great Ruby Dee. I'm Crushed By This Bad News And I Know Ruby Has Already Been Embraced In A Warm Loving Hug From Her Life Partner Of 57 Years-Mr. Ossie Davis. It Has Been One Of My Great Blessings In Life To Work With Two Of The Finest Artist And Activist-Ruby And Ossie Were In The Battlefields a With Paul Robeson, Malcolm X And Dr. Martin Luther King. Ruby And Ossie Served As A Living Example That One Could Be An Artist And A Activist Too, That One Could Be An Artist And Still Deal With What It Means To Be A Black Woman And A Black Man In These United States. God Bless You Ruby Dee. God Bless You Ossie Davis. The Both Of You Told Us "To Always Do The Right Thing. Spike Lee. Please Excuse All Typos.”
The documentary Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee, a film about the activism and theater work of the late Dee and Davis, will make its world premiere on June 22 at Film Life’s 18th Annual American Black Film Festival in Manhattan. The film is directed by the couple’s grandson, Muta’Ali.