Honoring Our Trailblazers: Black Actors and Actresses who Paved the Way

James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee headline the list

ossie and rubyRuby Dee

It’s hard to believe that in spite of delivering spellbinding performances for the last 63 years, Ruby Dee was nominated for her first and only Academy award nomination in 2008 for her work in the Denzel Washington-led “American Gangster.”

Ruby Dee’s illustrious career began in 1950 in the project “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Dee’s work in politically charged films of the sixties such as “Gone Are the Days” and “The Incident” were widely regarded as the pieces of black cinema that paved the way for other black actors in the business.

Never one to sit and wait for people to offer her roles, Dee and her husband Ossie Davis wrote, directed, and starred in plays together. The couple continued to fight black stereotypes in the arts until Davis’ death in 2005, stopping along the way in 1990 to pick up an Emmy Award for her work in the television movie “Decoration Day.”

As of now, Ruby Dee continues to act and comment on social and political issues in the world. She was last seen in the Lifetime television movie “Betty and Coretta.” There she got a chance to pass down wisdom to a legend in the making, Angela Bassett, and fairly new actress Mary J. Blige. The pearls of wisdom and knowledge Ruby Dee has stored in her mind could fill volumes and volumes of encyclopedias.

However, it’s not necessary for you to have to speak to the legendary actress to learn from her. All you have to do is watch her classic films and you know what it looks like to stand in the face of adversity and win.

Ossie Davis

Ossie Davis is one of the most respected actors to ever grace a theater stage. Seriously, there was really no one who could touch him when it came to emoting while delivering the toughest of lines.

Getting his start in the 1950 Sidney Poitier vehicle “”No Way Out,” Davis was one of the sprinkling of black actors who achieved some sort of commercial success prior to 1970. His approach to film was to follow Sidney Poitier, who didn’t take roles that demeaned the African-American race and culture. The only difference was if David did take a part as an African-American laborer, he didn’t play the part as a stereotype, but rather a serious blue collar working man who just happened to be black.

With that as his approach to making films, Davis also wrote and directed projects in which he starred in to make sure there weren’t any characters of color who were of a degrading nature. After directing several films in the seventies, Davis found a kindred spirit in a young director named Spike Lee and appeared in six films directed by the young Brooklyn director. Although Davis was never awarded for his acting prowess by the Emmy’s or the Academy Awards, he did receive the National Medal of Arts in 1995, along with his wife Ruby Dee.

A year before his death, Davis, once again alongside his wife Ruby Dee, was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. Davis later died in 2005, leaving Ruby Dee to carry on the legacy of a man who helped end oppression through his work on the screen as well as in the Civil Rights movement.

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