Grandson Shares ‘Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee’

Two weeks ago, Muta’Ali Muhammad was putting the finishing touches on one of his most personal projects to date. It took him about two years to complete his latest documentary, and he was thrilled about it’s upcoming premiere at the American Black Film Festival.

But his excitement quickly turned into sadness when he received word that forced him to leave the studio immediately. The leading lady of the very film he was just editing had died. That same lady was also his grandmother – the legendary Ruby Dee.

At 91, the Grammy and Emmy award-winning actress maintained an incredible career that spanned seven decades. It wasn’t her film and television appearances that captivated Muhammad the most though. It was her abundance of wisdom, passion for activism and infinite amount of grace and humility.

After his grandfather, Ossie Davis, died in 2005, he began to better understand the importance of cherishing the intimate and timeless moments shared with loved-ones. That’s when he picked up his camera.

Capturing his “Gram Ruby” in a way not seen before, the 34-year-old created Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee: A Life Story Documentary Celebrating 90 Years of Love, Art & Activism as a bow to the woman that taught him nearly everything he knows.

Muhammad chatted with us about his grandmother’s legacy and some of the greatest lessons he’s ever learned from her. Read what he had to say, and check out the trailer at the end.

JET: What was your grandmother’s reaction when you told her you’d be making a documentary?

Muta’Ali Muhammad: Well, I tell you what. She was about to say “no” (laughs). They [Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis] don’t like putting themselves up on a pedestal for any reason. But I’m so glad she did it. It’s a wonderful, rich work that describes both of their lives in an entertaining way. It’s hard to get them to really point the spotlight on themselves. But once she saw the premise and what people in my generation could learn about love, art and activism, she got really excited. She asked me every morning, “do you know what this documentary is about?” I said, “What?” She said, “It’s about community. You see us talking and it shows unity within family. It shows elders talking with people. If one family does that, then the neighbors do that and the people around the block do that and you’re tightening the bonds with the whole community.”

JET: Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee is such a great title. How did you come up with it?

MM: It had to do with my mother and my Aunt Nora. They helped me mold the synopsis. My mother asked me why I, one of the grandsons of Ruby and Ossie, wanted to do a film about them. When I broke it down, it had to do a lot of personal searching. I knew I was tremendously impacted by their strength. I called it “life’s essentials,” because the topics we were talking about were really about values and activism. When you look at it in a certain angle, those things trump telling somebody’s story in a chronological way. This whole stole story is about soaking up the values within her life so that they can live on forever.

JET: Who else is featured in the film?

MM: You’ll see Spike Lee. You’ll see Alan Alda, Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, Dr. Cornell West, Michelle Alexander, Phylicia Rashad, Hill Harper – names like that. All of those people have crossed paths with my grandparents to a certain degree, and they help move the story along. This is my first film on this scale. These people wouldn’t have done an interview with me had they not had such a high regard of my grandpa and Gram Ruby. Everybody that you see on that screen truly truly appreciated the two of them.

Honestly, I’m so happy. We created the first 30 minutes of the doc and screened it at Gram Ruby’s 90th birthday celebration in 2012. She got to see it to that degree. So she understood how intimate these stories were and how it would look with all of the people featured in it. It’s so odd that she transitioned the night we were making some of the last edits, and I don’t even know what to think of it. But she did get to see the first 30 minutes and I hope that she somehow gets to see the rest. I know she could feel what I meant and what I wanted to say. She’s very much here and connected to it.

JET: What will we learn about Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis that we might not have known before?

MM: Oh, wow! I think it comes to their activism. I’ve met people who didn’t know they were activists. The whole chapter dedicated to their activism really sheds light on a huge portion of their lives, because their lives were really dedicated to many people who were in need. When we dive into that chapter, it’s driven by the FBI file that I found. We get to see so closely how much they participated in the struggle for justice in the 1950s through decades later. You really get a different respect for who they were, and I think that may surprise some people.

JET: What do you want us to learn from this film?

MM: I want people to have a greater appreciation for who Ossie and Ruby were. If they are new to Ossie and Ruby, I want people to learn more about their lives. I want them to take away Gram Ruby’s message that we are each other and we are responsible for each other. I want to have successfully forwarded grandpa’s message, which is that “the struggle is far from over and the best of being done is yet to be so say the ones who died to set us free.”