Honoring Ruby Dee With a Party and Film

Muta'Ali Muhammad told us why he's working hard on a doc about his famous 90-year-old grandmother.

Hasna Muhammad, Muta'Ali Muhammad, Ruby Dee and Nora Day (Brahm Rhodes/Thin Edge Studio)
Hasna Muhammad, Muta'Ali Muhammad, Ruby Dee and Nora Day (Brahm Rhodes/Thin Edge Studio)

He said the audience will be pleased to witness several personal, family-recorded moments between his beloved grandparents. “There’s a huge amount of content that a lot of people have never seen before,” Muhammad told The Root. “Some of the stuff we’re screening tonight I don’t even think Gram Ruby has seen before. We’ve been able to obtain some very old footage of her and some old footage of Grandpa that we found during our research. Things like that, when I find them, I’m blown away by.”

Like much of black America, Muhammad said he reveres his grandparents’ romantic legacy but is determined not to view them through rose-colored glasses. “The honesty I’ve been able to have in conversations with my grandmother shows [their marriage] wasn’t all peaches and cream,” he said, referring to Davis’ infidelity and their later open marriage, which the couple discussed in their joint biography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

However, Dee still holds her late spouse in the highest regard and remains positive about how to handle life’s obstacles. “After Ossie left me I began to contemplate being a human being, and found out it is beyond our capacity to realize we are the products of miracles,” Dee said during her remarks. “Our job for this lifetime is to understand who we are. We are the God stuff. We are the power. Let’s get busy.”

Muhammad explained his film is based in a similarly inquisitive outlook. “This journey I’m on with the documentary is not about me asking random questions,” he said. “A lot of the questions I’m asking her I really want to know. Somehow I found it easier to ask such deep questions in an official interview format than if we’re just sitting around, watching TV together.”

Muhammad said he’s just sad his grandfather is no longer around to participate in the process. “I regret not being old enough and experienced enough to interview my grandfather like this while he was alive,” said the filmmaker, who was in his mid-20s when Davis died. “I’m lucky because he has a lot of his opinions on record and in his speeches and in his writings, so I consider them gems.

“But I do know from talking to other relatives that his father — my great-grandfather — instilled in him the value of the family structure, and he told them without any hesitation that family is the most important thing,” Muhammad continued.

“I miss his storytelling, his voice, his smile,” Muhammad said of his grandfather’s memory. “He had a very light way of handling situations. He was kind and gentle, and his key to everything was to treat every situation with grace. My parents said he always lived life like he had two angels on his shoulders. Being around somebody like that is always uplifting.”

Tomika Anderson is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia writer, producer and editor whose work has been featured on CNN.com, Fox News and Essence. Follow her on Twitter.

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