When the prolific actress and activist Ruby Dee died Wednesday at age 91, she left behind a show-business career that spanned seven decades on stage and screen, as well a legacy of breaking down barriers for black performers.
Here are but five of her notable film roles.
“The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950): Dee first gained national attention for her role as Jackie Robinson’s supportive wife, Rachel, in this biopic about the ballplayer, who portrayed himself in the film. Produced just three years after Robinson broke the color line in professional baseball, “The Jackie Robinson Story” proved to be one of the more successful sports movies of its time.
A 1950 review by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times noted “the sincerity of the dramatization and the integrity of Mr. Robinson playing himself” and Dee’s “well restrained” performance.
Forty years later, Dee would play Robinson’s mother in the TV movie “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson.”
“A Raisin in the Sun” (1961): After starring in Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 Broadway drama about the struggles of a black family on Chicago’s South Side, Dee reprised her role as the burdened wife Ruth Younger in the film adaptation, along with Sidney Poitier and many of their cast mates.
Edith Oliver wrote in the New Yorker that Dee was “even more impressive” on screen than she was on stage, and Dee’s performance earned her a a National Board of Review Award for best supporting actress.
“Buck and the Preacher” (1972): Dee once again worked with Poitier (whom she first met at the American Negro Theater) on his directorial debut, a post-Civil War western about a former Buffalo Soldier (Poitier) who devotes himself to protecting former slaves looking to homestead in the lawless West.
Dee steals scenes as Poitier’s strong, loyal wife and also delivers some searing social commentary. “War ain’t changed nothing and nobody,” she says at one point. “It’s like poison that’s soaked into the ground. They ain’t going to give us nothin’ … no 40 acres and a mule, no freedom either.”
“Do the Right Thing” (1989): Dee was introduced to a younger generation of moviegoers through two of Spike Lee’s early works: “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.” Both films costarred her real-life husband, Ossie Davis.
In “Do the Right Thing,” which chronicled the street life and simmering racial tensions in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Dee played the gossipy widow Mother Sister, while Davis played Da Mayor, the the philosophizing town drunk. Dee and Davis each won NAACP Image Awards for their performances, and a Variety review commended Dee for “standing out in a uniformly solid cast.”
“American Gangster” (2007): Dee made the most of her screen time in “American Gangster,” Ridley Scott’s biopic about drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Though she appeared on screen for less than 10 minutes, she gave a powerful performance as Lucas’ mother, whose smoldering anger erupted into a climactic slap across her son’s face. (“It’s not far from my nature to whack,” the actress told USA Today in 2008.)
Dee, then 83, won a Screen Actors Guild Award for supporting actress and also garnered her first and only Academy Award nomination.
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