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Can a New Film Reawaken Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee's Life Lessons?

Jamilah King | 05/21/2012


Like many people who lose their grandparents in adulthood, Muta’Ali Muhammad had his regrets. His 88-year-old grandfather had long suffered from heart problems before he was found dead in a Miami hotel room back in 2005. In the days, weeks and months that followed, Muhammad wished he’d had the sorts of candid conversations with his grandfather that seem plausible mostly in retrospect: How did he make his marriage work for over five decades? What did he do to make sure he always had to time to spend with his kids? Muhammad was in search of a blueprint, and felt hounded by the feeling that he hadn’t recognized the most obvious one until it was too late.

That his grandfather was award-winning actor, director, and activist Ossie Davis only complicated matters even more.

Though he missed the chance to ask his grandfather questions about his life as a filmmaker, Muhammad has promised not to make the same mistake with his grandmother,”Gram Ruby”, also known as 89-year-old actress Ruby Dee. With that in mind, he’s launched a new documentary project called “Life’s Essentials With Ruby Dee”, billed as an intimate, autobiographical look at two of the 20th century’s most important and enduring black actors. It’s the story of their notable carriers, political activism, and unique personal relationship.

Today he’s launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 by June 30 to complete the project.

Muhammad adds that his grandparents taught him a sense of responsibility to make art that was much more than just entertainment. Their careers showed that it was possible – and necessary.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee both helped pioneer 20th century black film, theater and television. They each had respectful acting careers before marrying in 1948, but together they helped break down barriers for the next 57 years. Ossie gained acclaim alongside Sidney Portier in 1950’s “No Way Out.” He came a celebrated and Emmy award-winning film and television actor well into later life, with more recent roles on Sesame Street and in several Spike Lee films. Ruby Dee became known for her role in the theater and film versions of “A Raisin in the Sun” and later became the second-oldest Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role alongside Denzel Washington in “American Gangster.”

But political activism was a constant in both of their careers. Dee was an active member of several civil rights organizations throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), NAACP, and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Davis spoke at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, and gave a powerful eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral.

Muhammad, now 32, had already made a name for himself as an indie film and music video director. He made documentaries of high-profile rappers like T.I., 50 Cent, and Ludacris. He started a production company called “The Raw Report.” But he often struggled to reconcile his art with a social conscience that propelled him to take political stances that were, in all likelihood, antithetical to an entertainment industry obsessed with its bottom line.

“I struggled for some time with the projects that I would direct,” he says, noting that his work sometimes didn’t fall in line with his political beliefs. “I share a thought that true equality affords my generation the freedom to create whatever they like artistically – including buffoonery.”

He says that this new documentary project is an attempt to bring his story, and that of his grandparents, to a new generation of artists and activists. The film will largely be seen through the eyes of Gram Ruby in conversation with her grandson about life, art, and love. And with plenty of experience in the film industry, Muhammad calls his Kickstarter campaign the “ultimate freedom” as a form of grassroots fundraising that he says falls in line nicely with his grandparent’s political ideals.

“This is an opportunity to look at art over the last 90 years,” he says, his voice laced with the hope that people can walk away inspired. “As we tell the story of [Ruby Dee’s] and grandpa’s life, you’ll get to see what growth exists when it comes to our people’s presence on stage, in front of the camera and behind the camera. You’ll see in one sitting their trajectory and get an appreciation for where we’ve progressed and where we might need to do a little more work.”

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