“Ruby Dee, an actress known as much for her civil rights activism as for her powerful stage and movie roles in productions including A Raisin in the Sun, has died,” reports Steve Chawkins in the Los Angeles Times. “Her film appearances included The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and the Spike Lee productions Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991). Dee received numerous honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000.”
“One of her most notable late-career performances came in 2007’s American Gangster, opposite Denzel Washington, whom she’d met almost 20 years earlier in the 1988 Broadway play Checkmates,” notes Missy Schwartz at Entertainment Weekly. “Her feisty performance as the mother of Washington’s violent drug lord character earned Dee her first Oscar nomination…. Dee’s final film is King Dog, a still-in-production crime drama featuring Ice-T.”
From Reuters: “Dee was married to actor Ossie Davis for 56 years until his death in 2005. The couple formed an exceptionally productive and enduring artistic and activist partnership. They performed together in 11 plays and five films and appeared together at some of the seminal events of the turbulent civil rights era. The actress broke free from the racially stereotypical roles often given to black actresses when she began her career in the 1940s and continued to act into her 90s.”
Ruby Dee was 91.
Update: Noel Murray at the Dissolve: “Her legacy is in nearly 70 years of indelible performances, on screen and on stage, in which she helped nurture and elevate material that defied mainstream showbiz’s expectations.”
“For a comprehensive overview of her life and work, start with Sarah Halzack’s obituary in the Washington Post,” writes Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker, where he’s collected links to profiles of Dee from the 60s and 70s. He notes, too, that Dee and Davis “were famously friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and politics were a non-negotiable constant in their lives. ‘We believe in honesty,’ Davis explained in 1988. ‘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.'”
Posting at Slate, Derreck Johnson writes that “when I heard that she had died, the first thing that came to mind was a 1995 production she starred in with her husband, Ossie Davis, called Two Hah Hahs and a Homeboy. (Davis died in 2005.) One of the most poignant moments in the production is a monologue titled ‘When I’m Gone.’ The couple shares the stage, bathed in soft light, and Dee instructs her partner how to react when she returns to the essence.” Here:
Updates, 6/13: Spike Lee‘s posted to Instagram: “It has been one of my great blessings in life to work with two of the finest artists and activists. Ruby and Ossie were in the battlefields 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 an 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.”
“It was not difficult to imagine what the Georgia-born Davis saw in his co-star when they appeared together on Broadway in Jeb, in 1946: not just a woman who could match his will to succeed in non-stereotypical roles, but an artist who would not be defined solely as a performer.” Hilton Als for the New Yorker: “Dee and Davis shared many things, including two of the most beautiful voices we’ve ever heard in film or onstage. Davis’s was round and deep; it vibrated you the way it seemed to vibrate his chest. Dee on the other hand always sounded, especially if she was laughing, as though she had just finished crying—and the laughter was her relief over being sad. She took in great draughts of air as laughter, tears, and the joy of being rippled through her small body.”
“Film work, however illustrious, was almost an adjunct to the career and legacy of Ruby Dee,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “In the 1960s she was the first African-American woman chosen to play leading roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. For her voluminous work in TV dramas, she received an Emmy award and eight other nominations. She wrote books and headlined her own one-woman show.”
Farran Smith Nehme‘s tribute is a collection of photos and quotations.
Updates, 6/14: In the Guardian, Ronald Bergan naturally begins with A Raisin in the Sun (1959), “about a down-at-heel black family seeking a better life in a segregated section of Chicago, Dee played Ruth Younger, Sidney Poitier‘s level-headed, long-suffering wife. She repeated the role in the film version two years later, for which she won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actress…. There were similar roles in Go Man Go (1954) and Edge of the City (1957), in both of which she was paired with Poitier. In another biopic, St. Louis Blues (1958), she played the patient fiancee of the musician WC Handy (Nat King Cole), but she was finally allowed some eroticism in Take a Giant Step (1959), in which, as a widowed housemaid, she is the confidante of a mixed-up 17-year-old (Johnny Nash).” In the 60s, “Dee’s involvement in the civil rights movement began to be expressed in her work, as in her role in Jules Dassin‘s Uptight (1968) as the tender girlfriend of a moderate turned militant (Raymond St. Jacques).”
Over the years, “Ruby Dee had come to be something of a load-bearing column in American culture—recognizably essential to that portion of it most closely identified with African-Americans, but also upholding something bigger.” Jelani Cobb for the New Yorker: “And there is the sense that her absence, coming in such close conjunction with the death of her peer Maya Angelou, leaves something less wieldy and in need of shoring up.”