by Kenya Bonner
“The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within – strength, courage, dignity.”
― Ruby Dee
“Life Essentials” with Ruby Dee is a documentary film directed by filmmaker Muta Ali Muhammad, the grandson of the late Ruby Dee (October 27, 1922 – June 11, 2014) and Ossie Davis (December 18, 1917- February 4, 2005). Life’s Essentials takes the form of an open letter from Ali to his late grandmother documentary and tells the story of one of the most enduring couples of our times, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, (married 57 years).
The screening was at Macy’s on March 22, hosted by Jackie Taylor of the Black Ensemble Theater. Co-sponsors included Uptown Magazine and Garrett Popcorn Shops with added support from the Black Ensemble Theater. Clarence Waldron led the Q&A following the screening of Muta’Ali and Jevon “NJ” Frank, the film’s producer.
A series of interviews based on forthright questions, candid conversations, celebrity interviews and never-before-seen footage from the family’s archival material, the film is a tribute and history lesson and part coming-of-age story. It gives viewers an intimate look into the lives of the couple considered by many to be the all-time king and queen of “Black Hollywood.”
The film features appearances by Alan Ada, (actor, director, screenwriter and author), Angela Bassett, (director/actor), Harry Belafonte, (singer, songwriter, actor, and social activist), Hill Harper (actor/author), Samuel Jackson, (actor/ film producer), Spike Lee (director, producer, writer, actor), Sonia Sanchez, (author/ poet) and Dr. Cornel West (philosopher, activist/author), along with the couple’s children, Guy Davis, Nora Davis-Day, and Hasna Muhammad-Davis; and the couple’s grandchildren. Each of the notables offers insight, some of their fondest memories and wisdom imparted into their lives by both Dee and Davis.
The film provides insight into their remarkable journey as trailblazers in the arts community and activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Cornel West referred to the couple as “political and artistic giants.” Muta Ali, meanwhile, said the documentary depicts the mystery surrounding one of the most celebrated and admired marriages in urban American history. “‘Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee’ focuses on principles Grandpa and Gram Ruby lived by. I spent the last two years of my grandmother’s life learning as much as I could from her about lasting love, conscious art, and undying activism and that became the heart of the film.”
The couple’s dedication to Love, Art and Activism touched many, as did and their dedication to placing the needs of others over their own. They established relationships with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The film sheds light inside their strong political ties. Dee was a member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), The NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1963, Dee served as the Mistress of ceremonies at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Davis also delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X in 1965. Dee also received the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League in 1970. In 2005 the couple was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Freedom Award. On March 30, 2007 she was inducted into the Westchester County Women’s Hall of Fame, joining other honoree, Hillary Rodham Clinton.