Ruby Dee Appreciation: How Civil Rights Activism Defined Her Rich Acting Career

Her bold roles in plays and films like “A Raisin in the Sun” helped shatter segregation-era stereotypes

Ruby Dee earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in 2007’s “American Gangster,” but it is her performances in “A Raisin in the Sun” — and her ability to combine activism and acting — for which she’ll be most remembered.

The actress, who died Wednesday at the age of 91, reprised her role as a suffering housewife in the 1959 Broadway version of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play about racial discrimination and black frustration in the 1961 Columbia Pictures film that co-starred Sidney Poiter.

In 2005, “A Raisin in the Sun” was selected for preservation in the United States of America National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its “cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.”

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The achievements of Dee’s career, which spanned seven decades and helped shatter segregation-era stereotypes, were all the more remarkable because she was a high-profile civil rights activist at the same time.

Her marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was one of Hollywood’s most enduring, lasting 56 years until his death in 2005, and was also intertwined with her work. They shared billing in 11 stage productions and five movies during long parallel careers.

do-right-thingThe pair co-starred in films such as “Do the Right Thing” (1989, photo left) and “Jungle Fever” (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; Davis wrote and Dee starred in the Broadway comedy play “Purlie Victorious” in 1961; and they teamed again for their stage memoir, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.”

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“They were strong and brave at a time when many Negro entertainers stood on the sidelines,” Lee said in an interview with the late movie critic Roger Ebert. “Ruby and Ossie were by Malcolm’s side, they were with Dr. King in Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington, and never worried about the negative impact it might have on their careers.”

Dee, who was born in Cleveland but moved to New York as an infant and began her acting career there in the 1940s, first came to national attention for her role in the 1950 movie “The Jackie Robinson Story.”

She and Davis were friends with Robinson and his wife Rachel, and Dee played the ballplayer’s wife Rachel in the story of his breaking baseball’s color barrier.

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She won a National Medal of the Arts in 1995 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2000.  In 2004, she and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors. Another honor came in 2007, after Davis’ death, when the recording of their memoir won a Grammy Award for best spoken word album, a category that includes audio books.

Y02AmerDThe role that brought her an Oscar nomination at age 83 was as the mother of Denzel Washington‘s character in Ridley Scott‘s crime drama “American Gangster” (photo left). The same role earned her a Supporting Actress award from the Screen Actors Guild.

Though best known for her work on the stage and movies, she had many TV roles. Dee won an Emmy Award in 1991 for her portrayal of a housekeeper in the made-for-TV movie “Decoration Day,” a story about race relations in the South. She was Emmy-nominated five times for roles in miniseries and guest spots on regular programs.

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She was the first black actress to appear on the popular nighttime soap opera “Peyton Place” in 1968, and had guest roles in several 1960s series including “The Fugitive” and “The Defenders,” in the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generation,” and more recently, on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

The performance that Dee herself felt was “the greatest role I’ve ever had” was in the 1970 play “Boseman and Lena.” She won an Obie Award for her part in the tale of a biracial couple in South Africa that becomes a target for the white and black communities.

“I can’t explain how this frail, tattered little character took me over and burrowed so deep inside me that my voice changed and I began to move differently,” she told the New York Times. “I’m alive with her as I’ve never been on stage.”

Here’s the trailer for the film version of “A Raisin in the Sun”: