Actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis met in 1946 in New York City when they were both cast in “Jeb,” a play by Herman Shumlin about racial intolerance.
Davis stopped to fix his tie during rehearsal and in an instant, Dee was captivated. “My attraction to him was the one miracle of my life,” Dee would say later.
Their love for one another is the basis of the upcoming documentary, “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee,” produced and directed by their grandson, filmmaker Muta’Ali Muhammad. Dee died June 11, mere days before its world premiere June 22 at the American Black Film Festival in Manhattan.
Born Ruby Ann Wallace in 1924, Dee moved with her parents from Cleveland to Harlem as an infant. There she grew up amongst the lush backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and pleaded with her father, at age 16, to allow her pursue acting. She married Davis in 1948 and remained his partner onstage and off for more than 50 years.
Dee came back to Northeast Ohio for stints at Playhouse Square, and the actress taught up-and-coming actors at the historic Karamu Theatre, which bears her likeness in a 40-foot-tall mural facing East 89th Street. “She’s a national treasure of American theater—period,” Terrence Spivey, artistic director at Karamu, told the Plain Dealer.
Indeed – and in other contexts, too. Dee emceed the 1963 March on Washington with Davis. Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. Together they raised bail money for arrested civil rights workers. At every turn, the duo used their platform to bring greater awareness and pressure to advance their message of equality.
After Davis died in 2005, Muhammad realized he had questions about the life of his legendary grandparents—and only one of them remained.
Muhammad began production on a documentary with the hopes of completing it by his grandmother’s 90th birthday. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, which raised $53,000, he began, capitalizing on time with Dee, who shared valuable insights into a life filled with art, love, and activism.
“Our marriage was a whole lot of learning, and talking and discussion and a little fighting in there too,” Dee said in a teaser for the film. “It was the most magical experience of my life.”
Watch the trailer below: