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It was a love affair born on stage. Just returned from serving in Liberia during WWII, Ossie Davis threw himself into theatre, a passion he had developed and nurtured at Howard University before the war. He landed the lead in the 1946 Broadway production of Jeb—fittingly, playing a soldier back from war—and while the show only lasted a week, the romance that blossomed between Davis and one of his co-stars, Ruby Dee, would endure for more than fifty years. Dee had begun acting at New York’s Hunter College before joining the American Negro Theatre company in Harlem, where her lifelong friends Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte would also train. Two years after their fateful meeting on Jeb, Dee and Davis used a day off from their current production to get married in a small ceremony in New Jersey, and shortly thereafter both became established stars on the Broadway stage.
Stage success naturally led the couple to Hollywood, and the two first played opposite each other in minor roles in Joseph Mankiewicz’s thriller No Way Out, which starred their friend Poitier. Dee soon won larger roles in such films as The Jackie Robinson Story and A Raisin in the Sun, while Davis became a featured player on the TV comedy Car 54, Where Are You? In 1970, Davis co-wrote and directed the landmark cop thriller Cotton Comes to Harlem, which is widely regarded as marking the birth of the “blaxploitation” genre that would yield Shaft, Superfly and Coffy. (Davis would go on to direct three more features, including a second contribution to the blaxploitation genre, Gordon’s War.) While the pair never stopped working in film, television and on the stage—in 1980 they even launched their own PBS variety show, With Ossie and Ruby—they experienced a career renaissance when Spike Lee cast them as neighbourhood elders “Da Mayor” and “Mother Sister” in his breakthrough film Do the Right Thing, and for the rest of their working lives and their lives together, they were almost constantly before the cameras; Dee even won an Oscar nomination for her performance in American Gangster in 2007.
Throughout their remarkable careers, Dee and Davis maintained a strong commitment to political and cultural activism, following in the footsteps of such progressive artists as Paul Robeson and Lena Horne. In the 1940s, they joined the drive for performers’ rights and equality for black artists in the New York theatre industry. When Robeson was blacklisted for his left-wing beliefs and refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the couple spoke out, resulting in Dee being blacklisted as well. In 1963, Dee and Davis served as MCs for the historic March on Washington; two years later, along with Sidney and Juanita Poitier, they organized a meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X with the aim of brokering an accord between the two civil rights leaders, a rapprochement that was tragically stymied by Malcolm’s assassination two weeks later.
Dee and Davis remained vocal advocates for equality and positive representation for the rest of their lives, committed to the idea that artists should use both their work and their position as public figures to help give voices to the voiceless and create positive change. In their personal and professional lives both, they exemplified the principle of doing the right thing.