The arts should serve the people.
Art and struggle brought them together. Love and dedication kept them united. For decades, Ossie Davis (1917-2005) and Ruby Dee (1922-2014) illuminated society through film, stage and activism in the community.
Their passion, rage, use of voice and resources made the couple completely fascinating and a force to be respected. For the admired couple, arts and activism were synonymous, and their bodies of work, on and off stage, continue to resonate and touch lives today.
Broken down into chapters that capture the essence of the couple’s life together and as individuals, Life Essentials with Ruby Dee: Love, Art and Activism, an intimate documentary, paints a portrait filled with artistic responsibility wrapped in the sincere arms of love.
Told from a coming-of-age perspective through compelling conversations between Ruby, Ossie and their grandson, Muta’ Ali, Life Essentials invites all to dig deeper into our past in order to understand how to operate in the present and future.
“The piece starts off with a verse from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” and that is what grandpa would often say in interviews,” Muta’ Ali shares with EBONY. “You could take that to mean that if you don’t keep an eye on what’s happening, you will be lost and in order to keep an eye on what’s happening, you have to look to your elders who can give you context and an understanding of where you are today versus where you came from.”
The documentary, now available on DVD and various digital platforms, is a history lesson on love through the rough and vibrancy through action.
In this EBONY interview, we speak with Muta’ Ali about lessons learned from his grandparents and how he carries their legacy into his art as a filmmaker.
EBONY: We look at the life and accomplishments of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and think “iconic.” But they had a different take on their contributions to the world. Can you share their view on such titles?
Muta Ali: I think they shied away from being called icons and legends. I remember Grandpa’s reasoning behind it being that it wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate their impact on the arts and various forms of culture and society – it’s just that when you call them icons, it kind of separates them from everyone else and in that sense it might inadvertently send a message that everyone else can’t attain the same thing.
EBONY: Interesting but very understandable. During the 50s and 60s there was an urgent sense of artistic responsibility. For your grandparents, the arts and social action worked together. What did that teach you as a creative and filmmaker?
Muta Ali: I used to produce documentaries that were more hip-hop related, and it made me think twice or three times about what kind of content I was putting out there. We’re getting the word of the people out there. No matter what the word is, we’re getting it out there. In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, whether it’s concept to distribution, what is the best for the people receiving this information? I know that’s because of the fact of how I absorbed [my grandparents’] methods of us being responsible.
EBONY: Yeah, definitely. Where do you feel today’s artistic landscape is in terms of having that type of charge and dedication to being a change agent in society?
Muta Ali: I feel a couple of ways. I think today, there are just as many artists as there were in the ’60s who are about the people and struggling for justice. It’s just a different landscape and a little bit more complicated. Grandpa and Harry Belafonte looked up to people like Paul Roberson and geniuses like that. They were able to translate the complexities of politics and law down to the people so that we could understand exactly what to do to address a certain political situation. I think that, that message is really hard to convey today because there’s no specific leader who’s able to simplify what needs to be done. We love to support Black Lives Matter as a collective, but there’s a disconnect with getting our emotions all high and actually being able to do something. I think they were able to close the gap back then between feeling like you need to do something and then being actually able to do something.
EBONY: While researching and having conversations with your grandmother, were there any ideologies that caused the two of you to bump heads – generational differences?
Muta’ Ali: Yeah… activism. It was very hard for me to explain how lazy I am when it comes to activism. It was embarrassing, but I figured the more honest I was about it, the more she could help me out. I felt that maybe somebody listening could identify with how lazy I felt as an activist. It was hard for her to even grasp it at first. Trying to explain to Ruby Dee, who’s all about activism, that I’m having this hard time doing it She’s like, ‘oh why don’t you just write to your political representative.’ And I’m like, ‘that sounds really good, grandma, but I know myself and I’m not going to sit down and write a letter to anybody.’ It just doesn’t come naturally. She didn’t really get how lazy somebody could be when it came to activism. That wasn’t necessarily a conflict but a sign that generationally there’s a big difference with what the average person today might do to speak up for how they feel versus what Ruby Dee would do.
EBONY: One of the things that is so precious about the doc is the fact you were able to have this intimate conversation with your grandmother, discuss all of these topics and gain first-person insight. Aside from the fact of being blood related, what fascinates you about your grandparents – Ossie Davis and Gran Ruby?
Muta’ Ali: That’s funny – no one has ever asked me that. That’s a good question. I’ve really always been fascinated by Grandma Ruby’s bravery. Although I was close enough to know certain things that concerned her, she always struck me as one of the bravest people I know. Even in her 90’s, she was not at her best physically. She actually passed away while we were finishing the documentary and needed certain things to even leave the house. But she worked on set and film all at the same time, because she was passionate about what she wanted, what she believed in and what she could contribute. To just be around some bravery like that is inspiring – nothing really held her back. And Grandpa, his writing was so tremendous that I’d read Purlie Victorious and different writings that he created. I admire his brilliance so much. He had a calm demeanor. If you ever met him, you would want to smile and give him a hug. He was a warm guy but so powerful and brilliant. I’m fascinated by how you even get to be somebody like that. I admire them both.
EBONY: What has their bond and body of work taught you about love, art and activism?
Muta’ Ali: What I didn’t realize until this whole complex piece was put together – and broken down into chapters – was that love really fueled their art and activism. I wondered how they could stay activists for so many decades. In the film, we show the FBI files and how they were keeping decades of records on Ossie and Ruby. All of that energy and risk that they took, even hiding the Black Panthers in their home and supporting [Julius and Ethel] Rosenberg who were executed, was fueled by love and that love for each other spread to love for their children and community. So realizing that made me think that as a couple, you really have a powerful effect on your community and love fuels it.