(The Root) — A who's who of famous black married folks and other notables gathered on a cold Wednesday night in Harlem, to fete with great warmth the life of beloved actress and activist Ruby Dee during a celebration of her 90th birthday.
The couples included actors Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, and Essence founder Susan L. Taylor and her author-husband, Khephra Burns. Others such as Harry Belafonte, Melvin Van Peebles and Rosie O'Donnell made appearances as well. Those who couldn't make it to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture helped fund the cocktail reception and related festivities for "Gram Ruby" through donations of time and money, according to the night's program. Donors and honorary chairs included Bill and Camille Cosby, LaTanya Richardson and Samuel L. Jackson and Billye and Hank Aaron.
Even one half of this generation's most admired married couples, President Barack Obama, chimed in on the professional and personal legacies of Dee and her husband of 57 years, Ossie Davis, who died in 2005.
"Your story is an important part of the American narrative," Obama wrote in a letter that Bassett read to a captive audience. He also praised her for her more than 70 years of service to America and, no doubt, for serving as inspiration to him and the first lady.
That touching moment is one of many from the evening's event that will be included in the upcoming documentary Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee, which is planned for completion in 2013.
The film is directed by Muta'Ali Muhammad — one of Dee's seven grandchildren — who, along with his partner Jevon Frank, funded a big chunk of it through a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $50,000 in 40 days. Muhammad said he seeks to better understand his grandparents' enduring love and commitment to art and activism.
"The film will be the first feature documentary surrounding the lives of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee," said Muhammad, 33, prior to screening a 30-minute excerpt from the unfinished film, which he intends to show at various film festivals in hopes of getting a distribution deal.
"As a filmmaker and as their grandson, it has an intimate quality that wouldn't be there otherwise," he explained. "The project is driven by my own desire to do well in the areas of love, art and activism, as well as my desire to learn from and cherish the wisdom that they've gained throughout their lives. So as I learn, everybody else learns."
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.
Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer, editor, producer and military brat who has traveled to 36 countries and counting. Follow her on Twitter.