Conversation with . . . Ruby Dee

22 02 2008

This Sunday night, Ruby Dee will be in contention for her first Oscar in her storied career. With a whirlwind of pre-show activities and events, the matriarch of Black film actors sat down for a quick Q&A.

This talented and mostly overlooked actress received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance in “American Gangster.” Dee’s career, which began in 1939, spans nearly seven decades. She made her first film while Black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux was still active and later appeared in several films by a director inspired him, Spike Lee. Ms. Dee co-starred in Sidney Poitier’s debut film, “No Way Out” and now has come full circle receiving an Oscar nomination co-starring with this generation’s “Poitier,” Denzel Washington.

Dee’s marriage with the well-respected Ossie Davis lasted over 50 years and the two of them were active in the civil rights movements maintaining friendships with both Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

In other words, her Oscar nomination is the cherry on top of a lifetime that has been sweet as a sundae!
After nearly 70 years in the business, what’s it feel like be nominated for an Oscar? AND how important was it to you?

It’s an exciting thing. It felt like I did a slow turn around with my jewels hanging. When they announced it, I thought, “Are you sure?” I kept denying it.

How much has the film industry improved for African American actors since you started? Is it better? Worse? You are the sole Black actor nominated this year. Does that mean anything?

That’s kind of a shock. I see the whole picture thing change so radically. Particularly in the world of producers. When I think of Spike Lee, when I think of Oprah Winfrey and the “Great Debaters.” I think of Tyler Perry. Before that, there was a young woman, Julie Dash. When I think of Kasi Lemmons. There are more. When I was coming along, I only knew of Joseph Lerner who teamed with Bill Alexander on “The Fight Never Ends.” The film was lost. It was one of the first films that my husband and I invested in. I feel good about that. We’d just come off the road to join Bill Alexander in this project. My first experience was an investor. I’ve not told anybody that today. We’re still looking for that film. Bill had financial troubles. Ossie lent me some of the money that he was planning to use to go to Columbia University. He never got it back. So Hollywood is opening up.

The updated “Raisin In the Sun” is coming to TV this month. How do you feel about the remake? Tell us about that experience for you.

I did go to see it with Sean Combs. I went to see it a number of times. I was so excited. It was a healthy Black audience, which was not the case when we were on Broadway. When we were doing “Raisin,” we had a special man doing leg work to get Black people to see it, to get audiences accustomed to coming to Broadway. So there’s a marked difference. It was exciting to see this different version.
What would Ossie would say about your Oscar nomination?

I found myself being very self-effacing about it. I was going through a shuffle back number with my personal faults. Ossie would say, “Now we talked about this. This questioning of my good fortune.” You have to claim the glory when it happens. You have to welcome it and determine where else you want to go.

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