In honor of TCM and their “Summer Under the Stars” series, we launch our companion series, Summer Madness. The series will spotlight the achievements and films of one Black actor, daily throughout the month of August.
Ruby Dee (October 27, 1922 – June 11, 2014) was an American actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and civil rights activist. She is perhaps best known for originating the role of “Ruth Younger” in the stage and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun (1961). Her other notable film roles include The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), and Do the Right Thing (1989). For her performance as Mahalee Lucas in American Gangster (2007), she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Female Actor in a Supporting Role. Dee was a Grammy, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk-winner. She was also a National Medal of Arts, Kennedy Center Honors and Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award recipient.
Dee joined the American Negro Theater as an apprentice, working with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Hilda Simms. She made several appearances on Broadway. Her first onscreen role was in That Man of Mine in 1946. She received national recognition for her role in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story. In 1965, Dee performed in lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear, becoming the first black actress to portray a lead role in the festival. Her career in acting crossed all major forms of media over a span of eight decades, including the films A Raisin in the Sun, in which she recreated her stage role as a suffering housewife in the projects, and Edge of the City. She played both roles opposite Poitier.
During the 1960s, Dee appeared in such politically charged films as Gone Are the Days and The Incident, which is recognized as helping pave the way for young African-American actors and filmmakers. In 1969, Dee appeared in 20 episodes of Peyton Place. She appeared as Cora Sanders, a Marxist college professor, in the Season 1/Episode 14 of Police Woman, entitled “Target Black” playing the character of Cora Sanders obviously, but loosely, influenced by the real-life Angela Y. Davis. She played Queen Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, a 1979 miniseries.
Dee was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, winning once for her role in the 1990 TV film Decoration Day. She appeared in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, and his 1991 film Jungle Fever.
Dee was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for her portrayal of Mama Lucas in American Gangster. She won the Screen Actors Guild award for the same performance. At 83 years of age, Dee is currently the second oldest nominee for Best Supporting Actress, behind Gloria Stuart who was 87 when nominated for her role in Titanic. This was Dee’s only Oscar nomination.
Ruby Wallace married blues singer Frankie Dee Brown in 1941 and began using his middle name as her stage name. The couple divorced in 1945. Three years later she married actor Ossie Davis, whom she met while co-starring in Robert Ardrey’s 1946 Broadway play Jeb. Together, Dee and Davis wrote an autobiography in which they discussed their political activism and their decision to have an open marriage (later changing their minds). Together they had three children: son, blues musician Guy Davis, and two daughters, Nora Day and Hasna Muhammad. Dee was a breast cancer survivor of more than three decades.
Dee and Davis were well-known civil rights activists. Dee was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1963, Dee emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dee and Davis were both personal friends of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, with Davis giving the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965. In 1970, she won the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League.
Dee died on June 11, 2014, at her home in New Rochelle, New York, from natural causes at the age of 91. #SummerMadness #Dee
The Jackie Robinson Story (’50)
A Raisin in the Sun (’61)
Buck and the Preacher (’72)
Do the Right Thing (’89)
American Gangster (’07)