Ruby Dee, an Oscar-nominated actress whose historic career indelibly intersected with the civil rights movement, died on Wednesday at 91, after more than 60 years in movies that included iconic roles in A Raisin in the Sun, Do the Right Thing and American Gangster. Dee was also an accomplished stage and television actress with an Emmy, SAG Award, and Grammy to her name, and was married to actor Ossie Davis for 57 years until his death. Together they had a lifelong partnership in activism.
Born in Cleveland in 1922, Dee was raised in Harlem during its artistically booming Renaissance and attended Hunter College before beginning a career on the stage at age 21, first at the famed American Negro Theater — which started the careers of Sidney Poitier, Harry Bellafonte, and Davis, among other famous alumni. Dee was married to blues singer Frankie Dee Brown for four years in the '40s, keeping his name after they divorced. She married Davis in 1948.
Her first major cinema role was as Rachel Robinson, husband to Jackie, in the 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, which starred the Brooklyn Dodger as himself. She originated the role of Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959 and reprised it in the 1961 film adaptation. Dee took other major film roles that explored race in uncommon and groundbreaking directions, such as 1957's Edge of the City and 1967's The Incident. She pioneered similar work onstage, such as the one-woman show Zora Is My Name, where she played novelist Zora Neale Hurston.
Dee never faded as an iconic actress, although she worked more in television in her later years (some of her best-remembered roles range from miniseries like Roots: The Next Generation and The Stand to a guest appearance in The Golden Girls). She never really slowed down her acting work; at the same time, she and Davis were always at the forefront of civil rights activism, helping to organize and emcee the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech. Davis died in 2005; the two wrote about the trials of their enduring marriage in an autobiography, "With Ossie & Ruby."
As Dee became somewhat of a grand dame in her older age, she continued to give searing performances. Spike Lee cast her and Davis as the moral heart of his masterpiece Do the Right Thing, where Dee played Mother Sister, who observes and comments on the action from the window of her brownstone. Dee got a long-overdue Oscar nomination for her work as Mama Lucas in American Gangster, winning a SAG Award, where she dominated the film's most memorable scene and brought Denzel Washington's drug dealer Frank Lucas back to reality. It was as much an acknowledgement of her career as it was of her never-diminished ability to take control of a film.