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Monday, June 16, 2014

The End of an Era: Rest in Peace, Ruby Dee

Last year folks were buzzing about the "Black Film Renaissance," referring to the plethora of black talent we saw on the big screen. While I was thrilled that new black films were being recognized by a new audience, my nostalgia for black films past prevented me from jumping on that bandwagon. I look back and I think about movies like Shaft, Claudine, Cornbread, Earl and Me, and I bask in the authority of these films, how each of them were as purposeful as they were accessible.

Then I think even further back to A Raisin in the Sun (1961), an assuming movie I first saw in high school about a family just trying to get by, battling the odds along the way. I thought, hey, they look a lot like my family. I had read Lorraine Hansberry's play on which it's based beforehand, and completely immersed my teenage self into the story. Other than its engrossing premise, I was blown away by the amazing performances of the cast, led by Sidney Poitier and the late great Ruby Dee. A diminutive but powerful force on the big screen (and beyond), Dee exuded elegance and an inspiring approach to acting that resembled women who came before her, like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.

With a career spanning seven decades, that reached far beyond the big screen, she--with husband actor Ossie Davis--helped carry the torch lit by others as they took a stand for civil rights, and helped insure that Dandridge and Horne's legacies would not be forgotten. Dee instilled a layer of authenticity in every role she played--from Ruth Younger to Lucinda Purify in Jungle Fever and Mama Lucas in American Gangster (for which she earned her only Oscar nomination).

When she spoke, we all listened. When she laughed, we all laughed. And when she died last week on June 11th at age 91, we all mourned. After learning of her death, the wind was immediately taken out of me and I started to ache for the greatness of an era that has too often been left out of conversation. As we continue to celebrate the accomplishments of a new era of Black Hollywood, let's not forget those like Ruby Dee, who paved the way for people like Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry.

Rest in peace, Ruby Dee. You are missed.

The ladies and I paid tribute to Dee on Sunday's podcast. Listen to a recap here.


37paddington said...

This is a beautiful and thoughtful tribute. Thank you!

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