Brooklyn hearts today have skipped more beats than an absent-minded policeman”…Sam Balter, “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950)
By Richard G. Carter
The recent death at 91, of iconic Black actress Ruby Dee — who originally burst on the scene in early, powerful movies about racial discrimination — recalls a time when stinging film dramas of Black-White racial conflict caused a stir throughout America.
Many hit the screens in the post-World War II years when thousands of Black military veterans came home to encounter renewed bigotry despite serving their country with courage and honor. Dee brought a sense of steadfast understanding and dignity in portraying the wives and sisters of such disillusioned, often broken men.
In 1963, Sidney Poitier raved to me about Dee during my Milwaukee Star interview with him at the Varsity theater in Milwaukee following a showing of his Oscar-winning role in “Lilies of the Field.” And in 1991 — when I got a chance to meet her, and her late actor husband, Ossie Davis in Brooklyn — she was effusive in returning the compliment.
When Hollywood began to deal seriously with the problem of race in the late 1940s, segregation was still a way of life in much of the country. This was graphically demonstrated in three early “race films” in which Dee played memorable roles: “No Way Out” (1950); “Edge of the City” (1957), and “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961).
The raw “No Way Out” is the story of an idealistic young Black doctor (Poitier), and virulent bigot (Richard Widmark). As Poitier treats him in the prison ward of a hospital for a gunshot wound, the sneering Widmark subjects Poitier to vile racial slurs. To avenge the death of his brother, who succumbs after being treated by Poitier, he creates a race riot in what they call “Niggertown.”
In a sympathetic role as Poitier’s sister, Dee urges him to eschew violence after he later is beaten by Widmark. But she cannot prevent the searing racial conflagration.
In the gritty “Edge of the City,” Dee supports her dock worker husband (Poitier) in battling waterfront corruption on the West Side of Manhattan. But she never trusts his new, White fellow worker friend (John Cassavetes).
Poitier joins forces with Cassavetes — an army deserter — in confronting a racist union racketeer (Jack Warden), who extorts money from Cassavetes. He also opposes integrating the docks and Cassavetes ultimately urges Poitier to fight Warden.
Although exuding enviable strength in dealing with their lower-class circumstances, Dee later accuses Cassavetes of never being Poitier’s friend, after he watches her husband killed by the bullying Warden in a bailing hook battle.
Dee’s greatest role was as Poitier’s long suffering wife in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Struggling in their cramped, Chicago apartment shared by his mother (Claudia McNeil), sister (Diana Sands) and their son (Stephen Perry), Dee finally falters as Poitier grates while seeking to quit his job as a chauffeur.
After being bilked out of half of his late father’s life insurance payout in a nefarious scheme by a con man (Roy Glenn), Poitier learns that Dee is pregnant and the couple seems to crumble. But McNeil uses the rest of the money to buy a home in a White suburb and they move in — despite a neighborhood association’s efforts to keep them out.
For her astonishing work as Denzel Washington’s mother in 2007’s “American Gangster,” Dee became the second-oldest Academy Award nominee (at 87) for Best Supporting Actress. And in the opinion of this long-time devotee of vintage movies, she very well could have been accorded the same honor for her memorable role as “Mother Sister” in Spike Lee’s amazing “Do the Right Thing” (1989), which was set in Brooklyn.
Among Dee’s other celebrated roles were in “Jungle Fever” (1991); “Cat People” (1982); “Buck and the Preacher” (1972); “Up Tight” (1968); “The Incident” (1967); “Gone Are The Days” (1963); “St. Louis Blues” (1958); “The Joe Louis Story” (1953), and “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950).
In each of these portrayals, the wonderful Ruby Dee’s immense talent and sensitivity always came shining through. She will be missed.
Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist