The loss of Ruby Dee (pictured) stunned fans of the award-winning actress, who passed away at the age of 91 in New Rochelle, N.Y. With a career that spans decades, the celebrated stage, film, and television star has left behind a firmly cemented legacy. Dee’s contributions to Black Cinema are not only noteworthy, they are absolutely necessary.
Dee’s first big break occurred, when in 1946, she starred in “Anna Lucasta,” a Broadway and national touring production. The play was both a boon for her professional and romantic life as she met her husband, Ossie Davis, as he worked the stage of another play.
The big screen came calling that year as well, starring in the film “That Man Of Mine,” and two years later, she starred in “What A Guy” that featured an all-Black cast. It wasn’t until the 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story” that Hollywood began to take notice of the glamorous Harlem native. Dee played the pioneering baseball star’s wife in the film, opposite of Robinson who played himself.
The stage is where Dee shined before her run in cinema would explode, and it was there again that her abilities were on display to be lauded by critics and fans alike. In 1959, Dee starred in a Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry‘s “A Raisin In the Sun” opposite fellow American Negro Theater alum Sidney Poitier. The play was turned into a film in 1961, which placed Dee on the nation’s entertainment radar.
The 1960s would be both a time of a notable creative uptick for Dee and Davis and also the couple becoming activists and important figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Davis wrote the southern-themed play “Purlie Victorious,” which was also turned into the 1963 film “Gone Are the Days!” with the pair reprising their roles. This period was marked with the couple forging close relationships with Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Splitting time between the stage and television, Dee followed in her husband’s footsteps and began writing scripts for films. One of her productions, 1967’s “Uptight,” starred former “Rawhide” actor Raymond St. Jacques. The 1972 Black Western “Buck and the Preacher” was another standout role for Dee, and it featured former troupe mate Harry Belafonte.
She continued to work the stage, starring in productions of challenging plays such as “Hamlet” and the “The Taming of the Shrew” and countless others. In the late 1970s, a pair of made-for-TV films would add on to her towering list of appearances. The miniseries “Roots” featured Dee in the role of “Queen Haley,” and the film adaptation of the late-Maya Angelou‘s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” were both released in 1979.
Dee and Davis also appeared in a pair of films from director Spike Lee: the 1989 classic “Do The Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.” Dee’s film career slowed down in the 1990s somewhat, although she remained busy as a stage and television actress. Amazingly, Dee didn’t receive her first Academy-Award nomination until 2008 for her role in “American Gangster” as “Mama Lucas” in the Supporting Actress category. Her last work in film was on Lifetime’s “Betty and Coretta” film as a narrator in 2013.
In 1991, she received an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her role in “Decoration Day.” In 2001, she received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2007, Dee would win a Grammy for Best Spoken World Album along with her husband for the recording “With Ossie And Ruby: In This Life Together.”
Listing Dee’s achievements and awards couldn’t nearly capture her vital role in the African-American cinematic landscape. Her regal beauty, formidable stage presence, and ability to convey a wide array of emotions in a scene proved that she was indeed one of the big screen’s valuable treasures.
She has inspired many young Black actresses, including recent Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who thanked Dee for paving the way for her just this past Sunday.
Dee will be sorely missed, but what she has left behind can be revisited until the end of our own days. We were blessed with such an immense talent and we can only hope that others will follow her mighty footsteps.
Rest Powerfully In Peace, Ruby Dee.