Stage and TV actor and veteran fighter for civil rights

Ruby Dee: October 27th, 1922 - June 11th, 2014

At a civil rights demonstration in Washington with Sammy Davis Jr

At a civil rights demonstration in Washington with Sammy Davis Jr


The actor and civil rights activist Ruby Dee, who has died aged 91, played an important part in the struggle for equality for African Americans, both inside and outside show business.

She first made an impression in A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking Broadway drama, which coincided with the rise of the American civil rights movement.

In the play, about a down-at-heel black family seeking a better life in a segregated section of Chicago, Dee played Ruth Younger, Sidney Poitier’s level-headed, long-suffering wife. She repeated the role in the film version two years later, for which she won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actress. American Negro Theatre It had taken her over 20 years in theatre and films to gain such recognition. From the early 1940s, Dee had appeared in productions of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), other members of which were Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis, whom Dee was to marry in 1948. It was in an ANT production of Philip Yordan’s all-black play Anna Lucasta, in which she starred on Broadway (taking over from Hilda Simms) in 1944.

She was born Ruby Ann Wallace in Cleveland, Ohio. (She took the name Dee from her first husband, the singer Frankie Dee Brown, to whom she was married from 1941 to 1945.) After her mother left the family, she was brought up in Harlem by her father, Marshall, a waiter on the Pennsylvania railroad, and graduated in 1945 from Hunter College, New York.

She first appeared in several low-budget films with all-black casts, specifically created for African-American audiences and shown in segregated cinemas. Here, in contrast to Hollywood productions, black heroes and heroines were depicted as vital, ambitious and assertive people.

When Dee began to appear in mainstream movies, she had to be content with more passive roles, to which she brought sympathy and warmth. In The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), a well-meaning biopic about the first black man to play in major-league baseball, she played Jackie’s supportive wife.

There were similar roles in Go Man Go (1954) and Edge of the City (1957), in both of which she was paired with Poitier. In another biopic, St Louis Blues (1958), she played the patient fiancée of the musician WC Handy (Nat King Cole), but she was finally allowed some eroticism in Take a Giant Step (1959), in which, as a widowed housemaid, she is the confidante of a mixed-up 17-year-old (Johnny Nash).

During the 60s, Dee was active in television, taking the role of Alma Miles in 20 episodes of Peyton Place (1968-69). On Broadway, she co-starred with her husband in his comedy Purlie Victorious (1961-62). She played Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear, the first black woman to appear in major roles at the 1965 American Shakespeare festival in Connecticut.

Dee’s involvement in the civil rights movement began to be expressed in her work, as in her role in Jules Dassin’s Uptight (1968) as the tender girlfriend of a moderate turned militant (Raymond St Jacques). In 1970, she triumphed opposite James Earl Jones in Athol Fugard’s anti-apartheid play Boesman and Lena. It was inevitable that she would be cast in two of Spike Lee’s best movies, Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991).

Dee continued to appear in films, on stage and on television, but much of her and her husband’s time was taken up with activities organised by a variety of civil rights movements.They were friends and supporters of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, raised money for the Black Panthers and demonstrated against the Vietnam war. Odd couple In some ways, they made an odd couple: she was petite and stylish, he large and bluff. “We shared a great deal in common; we didn’t have any distractions as to where we stood in society. We were black activists. We had a common understanding,” Dee told Ebony magazine.

In 2007, she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role as the feisty mother of a Harlem drug lord (Denzel Washington) in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster.

She is survived by Guy, Nora and Hasna, her three children with Davis. He died in 2005.