I had the pleasure of seeing Ruby Dee and her husband Ossie Davis at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture sometime in the early 2000s. I don’t remember what they were there to speak about. It may have been part of the 100th birthday tribute to Langston Hughes the center was doing in 2002. In any case, I remember Ms. Dee was not in the best of health at the time, and when I went up to shake Mr. Davis’ hand after the presentation, he was polite but clearly pre-occupied with how his wife was doing, frequently looking over at her and hurrying off to join her as soon as he finished his pleasantries with me. I admired him for that and envied Ms. Dee. In that brief moment it was clear how their relationship lasted so long. They truly loved each other and apparently knew well enough how to live with the fact.
It turns out Mr. Davis was the one who was not long for this world at the time. He passed away three years later, and Ms. Dee went on to star in a few more movies, like Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” – which earned her a supporting actress Screen Actors Guild award and an Oscar nomination. She also continued to be the great civil rights activist and inspiration she had been throughout her life.
Her performances that stand out for me are probably the same ones that stand out for most of her fans. She was beautifully devoted to and desperate for her husband, played by Sidney Poitier, in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Opposite her real-life husband Mr. Davis on the screen, she was a doting and peace-making wife and mother in “Jungle Fever” and a cross and no-nonsense life-long neighbor in “Do the Right Thing,” both directed by Spike Lee. And in “American Gangster” she humbled her son – a powerful, shrewd, and ruthless criminal played by Denzel Washington – with passionate common sense to try to save him from himself.
She had beauty, grace, talent and spoke truth to power. And though it is a great loss for this world, I’m sure she is thrilled to be reunited with her Ossie.