Written by | Ray Cornelius
In 2012, rising filmmaker Muta’ Ali, embarked on a passion project centered on the lives of his grandparents and one of Hollywood’s most enduring couples, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. The open-letter styled documentary was appropriately titled Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee and combined over 50 years of the couples’ wit and wisdom in to 90-minutes of valuable lessons about mastering love, conscious art and undying activism. The film features never-before-seen archival footage of their storybook marriage as well as insightful commentary from those who knew them best including Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Phylicia Rashad, Dr. Cornel West, and Danny Glover.
I recently caught up with Ali during this year’s BronzeLens Film Festival to chat with him about the project and his inspiration behind it. We also talked about the biggest lessons learned while shooting the film and the “magic” that was Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. Check out my “5-Minutes with Muta’ Ali.”
RC: What was the inspiration behind the film?
MA: I personally wanted to learn more about my grandparents because they lived such great lives. I was about 29-years-old and in a phase of my life where my questions were more significant than they were when I was a teenager. I found myself wishing that I had sat down with my grandfather and talked about heavier, substantial issues. We did talk about African-American history and things of that nature but not as personal as I get in this documentary. I knew I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Gram Ruby. With that being sad, I made the journey to New York to sit her down and not be embarrassed by the questions I had or passive with my time with her. I thought to myself, I would be a fool to not try and capture some of her essence and absorb some of her magic. Little did I know it was the beginning of the last two years of her life.
RC: What is the biggest lesson you learned from your grandfather, Ossie Davis?
MA: He was a statesman. He was able to treat everyone kindly. He was able to give advice without being overbearing. He was able to handle erratic situations and become a source of peace and calmness like a balm. Just witnessing that was a lesson itself. Physically, he was a huge guy so he could have been an imposing person but he wasn’t. He was the gentlest yet affective person I’ve ever known. To be aware of that possibility was a lesson for me.
RC: What was Ruby Dee’s most proud of in terms of her dramatic work?
MA: There was so much but I do remember her being proud of her book of poetry and one woman show, My One Good Nerve. That has been redone around the country so many times. If you ever get a chance to read it or see the show, you would understand the breath of her artistic talent. Even at her memorial, we had a group of actresses read some of the poetry which was so moving and powerful and funny all at the same time. Gram Ruby was also proud of the play, Boesman and Lena, which she won Obie Award in 1971.
RC: What did you learn about your grandparents that you didn’t know before?
MA: I learned a lot about love, art and activism. What’s standing out the most right now though is that she was actually married to a man named Frankie Dee Brown before she married Grandpa. That was news to me considering I didn’t know that she was married to someone other than him. I saw his picture for the first time while digging through the archives. I finally figured out the story behind that and talked to Harry Belafonte about that and some of the other actors she worked with at the American Negro Theater. It showed me that Grandpa and Gram Ruby had the perfect connection. It also showed me that sometimes you don’t get it right the first time and that’s ok.
RC: What was the glue that held them together all of those years?
MA: I think it was a couple of things. I believe they were very attracted to one another. (LOL) They were also raised to have a strong respect for the family structure. They really grew up appreciating family and really taking care of one another and that was more important than your own personal desires. Your desire should always be to take care of your family and your community. She never claimed that Grandpa didn’t disappoint her and she can’t say that she never disappointed him either. However, they knew they would never leave each other. Grandpa would also say that the struggle kept them together. There was always some march or cause. They knew that the love they had for each other and that had been instilled in them since childhood compelled them to take action even if there was some friction between the two of them. There was a greater cause and a greater thing that brought them together. Their art work bonded them together. Those things combined made them a great pair.
RC: What do you want people to walk away after seeing the film?
MA: The most universal lesson that Gram Ruby taught me was about community. She never got to see the whole film but she said that, “You’re putting a spotlight on a Grandmother lovingly helping her grandson through issues of love, art and activism.” Although it’s biographical, it’s actually fueled by that desire to teach your descendants and keep them on the straight and narrow. When you put that on a pedestal it inspires others to speak to their elders and explore the values and lessons they have learned. Then the whole neighborhood will do it and then the community will do it and the entire city will be inspired by what life’s essentials is all about.
Photo Credit: RayCornelius.com