Why A Film About Ms. Ruby Dee (1922-2014) Should Be Distributed In A Time Like This

Sony Pictures has gotten a lot of negative press regarding its attitudes about the film industry. Most striking is the email to CEO Michael Lynton asserting that films with Black leads should not be distributed internationally because they would not be profitable. People only believe propaganda like this because Hollywood since “Birth of A Nation” has spent a lot of energy promoting a white supremacist capitalist agenda without calling it that. Well Sony Pictures and other liberal film companies within the Hollywood film industry have a phenomenal opportunity to prove once and for all that they in fact do not want to pander to a market that would be offended by a Black lead. The opportunity is to distribute a film about the legendary actress and activist Ruby Dee (1922-2014). Her life is powerfully captured in a new documentary about her called “Life’s Essentials With Ruby Dee” produced by her grandson Muta’ Ali Muhammad. Ms. Dee’s life and career embodies the success of Blacks and whites working together in the film and theater industry. Her life shows the incredible potential that one life can have in eliminating institutional racism. She brought Black writer Alex Haley together with white producer David Wolper to produce the highest rated television miniseries “Roots.” She starred in the first Off-Broadway production co-produced by a Black woman and a white man, Alice Childress and Joseph Papp in a powerful production called “Wedding Band” at the Public Theater. The play is about an interracial couple trying to survive in early twentieth century South Carolina and starred Ruby Dee alongside James Broderick at the Public Theater. The new documentary about her life was recently screened in Philadelphia on Thursday, December 18th. Before the screening was a reception that featured performances in tribute to Ms. Dee by Lois Moses, Bruce Robinson, Indiya N. Glenn, Kira Brown-Gray, and Professor Sonia Sanchez. In the remarks that I shared at the beginning of this reception, I shared that Ms. Dee supported the work of Paul Robeson (1898-1976) who like Ms. Dee was a pioneering actor. In a 1976 interview with Nicolas Guillen, Robeson said that “I am convinced that the great American and English companies are controlled by big capital, especially by the steel trust, and they will never let me do a picture as I want…The big producers insist on presenting a caricature image of the Black, a ridiculous image, that amuses the white bourgeoisie, and I am not interested in playing their game.” The email to Lynton is evidence of the industry’s catering to this white bourgeoisie. The emails prove that big capital still insists in 2014 on presenting “a caricature image of the Black” by creating a market for only white leads. By supporting a film about Ruby Dee, they can completely shatter this stereotype. Last week, President Obama promised to return the remaining three of the Cuban Five. Ms. Dee had a developed and sophisticated opinion about the Cuban revolution in her 2000 interview with Harold Dow for the American Archive of Television where she said “we need Cuba on the other side” in order to keep our democracy healthy: “in order to walk, one foot has to go forward and the other backward.” She believed that the Cuban revolution keeps American democracy healthy. She disagreed soundly with the purpose of U.S. embargo of Cuba as a tool to punish the Cubans because of their socialist revolution. She understood and explained to Dow exactly why Fidel Castro would be disgusted with the social conditions in his country up to 1959 in order to change them to benefit the masses in a more direct way. Ms. Dee supported Paul & Eslanda Robeson when their passports were seized by the U.S. State Department in 1950 after Robeson refused to perform before racially segregated audiences and when he said in 1949 in Paris that it is unthinkable for Negroes in the U.S. to fight the Soviet Union who has raised its citizens to the full dignity of humankind. 1950 is the same year that the U.S. invaded the Korean peninsula under the Truman Doctrine to stem the spread of communism. But they could not dominate the entire peninsula: only the southern half which they have occupied to this day. While Sony Pictures wants to promote a comedy that belittles the current leadership of North Korea, it and another film companies should think more about messages of reconciliation and diplomacy rather than messages of ridicule that originate from an imperialist and racist doctrine that caters to a white bourgeoisie. This country has a lot to learn, based on the murders of Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Mike Brown, and countless others from other countries about how to relate to its own citizens. Ms. Dee was a world citizen and this film about her by her grandson exposes her heart not only for working together, but it exposes her heart to her own family, namely her grandson. Distributing “Life’s Essentials With Ruby Dee” will make a strong statement to the world that Hollywood no longer promotes racist stereotypes. By distributing this film, Hollywood has a phenomenal opportunity to show the world, that reconciliation is possible. -RF.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.