Ruby Dee's grandson documents life of love, art, and activism

Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee is among the documentaries worth seeing at fifth BLFF

Wednesday October 22, 2014 04:00 am EDT

FAMILY AFFAIR: Ruby Dee (left) guides grandson and filmmaker Muta'Ali on a personal journey in Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee.

By the time Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis began appearing in Spike Lee joints in the late '80s, they were already icons of the stage, screen, and Civil Rights Movement. But it took the 1991 star-packed premiere of Jungle Fever for Muta'Ali to recognize his grandparents were a big deal.

"I was very young," he says today. "Patrick Ewing is there and Stevie Wonder, and everybody's loving up your grandparents. I'm like, obviously this is something special."

His appreciation for their greatness beyond the big screen grew with his own maturation. Yet it wasn't until he finally read their dual autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, five years after Ossie Davis passed in 2005, that Muta'Ali realized how many unasked questions his grandfather left him with. Fortunately, Muta'Ali had Ossie Davis' better half to pose them to.

"I didn't want to make the same mistake," he says. "So I asked my grandmother if we could talk with her about her life."

Their conversation serves as the premise for the resulting documentary, Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee, which screens 2:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 26, at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights as part of the BronzeLens Film Festival of Atlanta.

Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee is one of several entries in a strong crop of documentaries at this year's BLFF. Others include City of God — 10 Years Later, which reveals the impact, both negative and positive, that the original film had on the favelas it depicted and the young actors who starred in it; Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, a paradoxical look at the role the camera has played in the depiction of African-Americans throughout history; and That Daughter's Crazy, which documents Rain Pryor's struggle as a half-Jewish/half-black entertainer living in the shadow of her legendary father, Richard Pryor.

BLFF, which showcases films about and created by people of color, is celebrating its fifth anniversary. This year's schedule includes special events such as workshops and panels with Ray screenwriter Jimmy White and film producer Reuben Cannon, screenings of domestic and international films, shorts and features. But documentaries like Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee look most compelling this year.

Ruby Dee was hesitant to participate in the telling of her story at first. But after Muta'Ali, whose behind-the-camera experience up till that point revolved around documenting the careers of multi-platinum hip-hop artists, explained his vision to create a personal documentary that explored the life Ruby Dee shared with Ossie Davis, she agreed and helped him further hone his story.

Their intimate exchange focuses on the bonds of love, art, and activism that Ruby Dee shared with her husband of 56 years, and the family values they passed on to their progeny.

The independently produced film couldn't have happened at a better time for the two of them. Muta'Ali, now 35, had been grappling with his own doubts concerning his career, marriage as a viable option, and duty to community when they began working on the film three years ago. He hopes their intergenerational exchange can serve as a lesson for viewers. Though Ruby Dee never got to see the completed version, she did get to view act one of the documentary during a special private screening before she passed in 2013. Muta'Ali recalls seeing how she beamed with pride during a standing ovation that night with the rest of the crowd.

"I did find solace in the fact that I cherished the time I had with Gram Ruby over these last few years," Muta'Ali says. "I'm finally heeding her advice in so many ways." C\

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