'Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee': Film Review

Courtesy of BAM Cinematek
This deeply personal documentary is both informative and moving

Muta'Ali Muhammad's documentary is a loving tribute to his grandparents, famed actors and social activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

It's hard not to feel like you're eavesdropping on a private family conversation while watching Muta'Ali Muhammad's documentary tribute to his grandparents Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Lovingly dedicated to "Grandpa & Gram Rudy" in the opening credits, Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee is a deeply personal effort in which the filmmaker is as much the subject as his famed actor/activist relatives. The film was recently showcased at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's New Voices in Black Cinema film festival.

Structured in the form of an open cinematic letter to his grandmother, the film begins with Muhammad lamenting the fact that he never had the opportunity to interview Davis in depth before his sudden 2005 death in a Miami hotel room. Among those paying tribute to Davis at his funeral was Bill Clinton, who declared, "He would have been a very good president of the United States."

This eventually prompted the filmmaker to interview his grandmother before it was too late — she died last year at the age of 91 — with the resulting documentary including many excerpts from their filmed conversations as well as a brief history of her and Davis' life and careers. Dee, born Ruby Ann Wallace, began her acting career in the 1940s in the American Negro Theatre, an offshoot of the WPA. Her colleagues included Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, with the latter declaring in an interview, "I was madly in love with her."

Much to his regret, he failed to win her affections. Instead, she married a salesman, Frankie Dee Brown, taking his middle name as her stage name.

"I didn't want to be Mrs. Brown," she comments.

Read more 'Gone Too Far': Film Review

The couple divorced four years later, with Dee meeting Davis when they co-starred in the 1946 Broadway play Jeb. They married in 1948, with the union lasting over 56 years. "I thought it was a pretty good use of a Thursday," Davis later said about their wedding day.

Using as its main topics "Love, Art and Activism," the film deals with all three aspects of the couple's distinguished lives. Their performing careers are briefly chronicled, with clips of such films as No Way Out, The Jackie Robinson Story, St. Louis Blues, A Raisin in the Sun and Gone Are the Days! (based on Davis' stage play Purlie Victorious) in which either or both appeared. Among the many interview subjects is Alan Alda, who made his screen debut in the latter film.

The couple also acted together in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, with Lee noting that Davis wrote many of his own speeches in both films.

Also briefly touched upon is the couple's extensive civil rights activism, which included close ties to both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Davis delivered eulogies at both funerals). The couple was also the subject of intensive investigations by the FBI.

Read more 'Ojuju': Film Review

The extensive interview clips featuring Dee speaking with eloquence and sensitivity about her life. Less effective is the filmmaker's attempt to inject himself in the subject matter, questioning his own ability to be faithful in a romantic relationship while asking his grandmother about the period in which she and Davis had an open marriage (she doesn't recommend it). He also voices doubts about his own commitment to political activism, with the resultant shift in focus to self-absorption occasionally detracting from the film's overall impact.

Still, Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee ultimately emerges as a deeply impassioned, thoughtful and loving portrait that brings a much deserved spotlight to these vitally important artists who contributed so much to American culture and politics.

Director-screenwriter-director of photography-editor: Muta'Ali Muhammad
Producers: N.J. Frank, Muta'Ali Muhammad

Not rated, 90 minutes