December 18, 2014

Happy Birthday: Ossie Davis (1917-2005)

Ossie Davis was born on this date in 1917. He was an African American actor, writer, producer, director, and a "giant of civil rights." It is hard to think of Ossie Davis without thinking of his wife, Ruby Dee. The two of them demonstrated the power of a committed love between a married couple.

Raiford Chatman Davis (his birth name) was the oldest of five children born to Laura Cooper and Kince Davis in Cogden, GA. He picked up his nickname others mistook his mother's articulation of his initials, "R.C” as "Ossie." He headed for Howard University, where he studied under drama critic Alain LeRoy Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar. Davis began his career as a writer and an actor with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem in 1939.

Davis and Ruby Dee were married in 1948, and are the parents of three children. In 1961, Davis wrote and starred in the critically acclaimed “Purlie Victorious.”

He wrote and directed many films, including “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970) and “Countdown at Kusini” (co-produced with his wife, Ruby Dee, 1976), the first American feature film to be shot entirely in Africa by Black professionals.

Davis wrote a number of books and received many honors and citations, including the Hall of Fame Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in 1989; the Theater Hall of Fame in 1994; the U.S. National Medal for the Arts in 1995; the New York Urban League Frederick Douglass Award; the NAACP Image Award and more. Dee and Davis were joint Kennedy Center honorees in December. They were cited not only for their "theatrical and film achievement," but because they opened "many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America's multicultural humanity."

Davis and Dee were eloquent voices and fundraisers for civil rights issues from the McCarthy era in the 1950s. They were blacklisted because of their activities, and well into the 1980s and '90s, Davis continued as a spokesman for numerous causes of equality.

Ossie Davis was found dead on February 4, 2005, in his hotel room in Miami Beach, FL, at the age of 87.

I enjoyed watching Ossie Davis whenever I could. I thought that he was great in two Spike Lee movies, 'Get on the Bus' and 'Do The Right Thing'. However, my most powerful memory of Ossie Davis comes from somthing that I heard many years after the fact ... his eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X.

Villagers -- what is your favorite memory of Ossie Davis?


msladyDeborah said...

Ossie Davis was a true talent. I liked how he often supported other talented actors and authors. I remember a show that he and Ruby did for PBS that featured Gil Scott Heron. It was really great to see the three of them together.

I also liked the roles that he played in Get On The Bus, Do The Right Thing, and of course Pearlie Victorious!

Unknown said...

Lady D - Oddly enough, I've never seen Purlie Victorious. I guess I need to try to find it online somewhere...

Carolyn Moon said...

I've always admired Ossie Davis. He and Ruby Dee were fearless champions of justice for black people & oppressed groups since the 1940's. They fought for Paul Robeson and against the anti-red paranoia movement that displaced a lot of our leaders, cultural critics and writers. Braved the vitriolic climate to be present at Malcolm X's funeral despite the the threats of violence and retaliation. His speech was by far one of the best and he remained true to the cause until his death.

Their autobiography is on my bookshelf which is a must read for anyone who cared and continue to respect Ruby Dee and the memory of Mr. Davis.

Unknown said...

Carolyn - Amen dat! They are both true examples of the power of finding and keeping close with your soulmate. More of us could learn to live by that example as well!