Fortunately for us, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis’s grandson Muta’Ali thought to document his grandmother’s unprecedented example in the film Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee™: Love. Art. Activism.
Prior to Mrs. Dee’s June 2014 death at age 91, Ali captured one-on-one interviews with his grandmother as well as their slew of devoted friends in arts and entertainment (Harry Belafonte, Phylicia Rashad, Spike Lee, Angela Bassett, and Danny Glover to name a few). The beautiful result is part-biopic, part family history and part American retrospective.
Now, hungry audiences are lining up for tickets to preview the film during its tour of screenings at special events in select cities nationwide. I had the privilege of attending a sold-out screening co-sponsored by Chicago’s Macy’s for the general public and a who’s who of the city’s arts leaders. The film’s director NJ Frank sat down with Ali and famed entertainment journalist Clarence Waldron of CW Media for an insightful Q & A on the complex joy of opening Mrs. Dee’s life for her fans.
Here are my favorite Ruby Dee’s life’s essentials:
Rehearse, even if you are a superstar. When Mrs. Dee booked the Apollo in Harlem for her own feature event shortly after her husband’s 2005 death, she wore her band members and co-stars out with her precise acting method and line reviews. Unfortunately, Mrs. Dee had an attack of congestive heart failure the day after her show wrapped. Many younger divas, chided often for their demands and rehearsal no-shows, could learn from that level of commitment.
You do not have to take your husband’s name if you don’t like it. We almost came to know ‘Ruby Dee’ as ‘Ruby Brown’. She met her first husband, pint-sized blues singer Freddie Dee Brown, when just a teenager at the American Negro Theatre company. Ruby, nee Wallace, asked him to slash the ‘Brown’ so she would not have such a plain surname. When she divorced him and married Ossie Davis in 1948, she took no chances and kept it at ‘Ruby Dee’.
Marriage does not have to be perfect. She and her husband had fights. They did things that could have made one another unhappy. The key to her marriage was she knew she would not leave her husband no matter what. As well, he said he would follow her wherever she ran to anyway.
Open relationships don’t work. During the free 60s, Ruby and Ossie jumped on the fling bandwagon. They jumped off quickly. As her grandson questions his abilities to be faithful for 56 years like his grandfather, Mrs. Dee advises him strongly not to believe sexual flexibility in marriage is the answer.
Political consciousness belongs in art. The Davises met in the play Jeb in 1946. Their breakthrough star turn came on Broadway hit a few years later. However, the couple turned down any stereotypical or immoral roles due to a belief that “Art should serve the people, like the Constitution.” She admits this cost them money and many luxuries, but it provided a gateway to their civil rights activism.
Kids need structure, positive reflections and a picket sign. Mrs. Dee credits her mother for her artist’s discipline and spirit of protest. She remembers when blacks could spend money in Harlem, but could not work in its stores. She observed her mother speaking up against disrespecting storeowners. She also never fell for degrading beliefs due to her parents, who divorced when she was young. Neither one would not let their children watch the popular movies or television shows featuring black actors as objects of ridicule or symbols of laziness. Instead, the children followed a strict schedule of chores and early bedtimes.
The filmmakers will next take Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee™ to New York City and the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday, March 28. To keep up with new screenings as well as upcoming news about DVD availability, follow hasthtags #RubyDeeStory and #LoveArtActivism.