“The original Will and Jada.” Amid the hubbub at Harlem’s Schomburg Center late Wednesday night, during a special event celebrating the 90th birthday of living legend Ruby Dee, a dad explained the honoree in terms his teenage son might understand. His description, of course, hardly scratches the surface. Ask Melvin Van Peebles, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover or any of the other distinguished celebs milling around and a clearer picture would definitely develop. Through seven decades, the Oscar-nominated actress, activist and (with late husband Ossie Davis) matrimonial icon Ruby Dee mixed African-American love, art and politics into a unique legacy all her own.

Hundreds of invited guests took seats in the auditorium, and after a brief intro by Angela Bassett, the Schomburg screened Life’s Essentials With Ruby Dee. Directed by Dee’s grandson Muta’Ali, and funded through Kickstarter (raising $50,000 in just 40 days), the documentary traces the actress’s life and times in the context of Muta’Ali questioning social activism and matrimony. A work in progress, the unfinished doc concluded after 30 minutes with a flirtatious Belafonte singing “Happy Birthday to You.”

Daughter Nora Day brought a grateful Ruby Dee up onstage from the front row, where she was applauded and serenaded by the audience as a birthday cake was presented. Day read a congratulatory letter from President Barack Obama, and soon, everyone flowed back to the Schomburg reception area for live music, champagne and bite-size desserts. Long live the lovely Ruby Dee.

—Miles Marshall Lewis