Friday, June 13, 2014

Ruby Dee and the Scream that Killed Generations of Progress

When news broke yesterday that the world had lost the wonderfully creative, vastly important legend that is Ruby Dee, my mind immediately began recalling her famed screen performances. Supporting her fearless, tortured husband in The Jackie Robinson Story, struggling to keep her family afloat in A Raisin in the Sun, enabling her junkie son in Jungle Fever, fearlessly slapping Denzel Washington in American Gangster. Off screen, Dee delivered even more courageous work as a vocal, decades-long activist for African-American civil rights. Ruby Dee changed things, and America is a better place for it.

But when I think of Ruby Dee, one woman dominates my mind. A woman set in her stubborn ways, basking in the sun, keeping watch over her block of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I’m speaking, of course, of Dee’s marvelous incarnation of Mother Sister in Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. Mother Sister is a stoop lady – a sharp ol’ gal who isn’t afraid to cut you down. The citizens of Bed-Stuy never know what to expect from her; whether it be a lecture, a faint word of praise, a sneer, or a smile, Mother Sister always leaves her mark.
The climax of Do the Right Thing remains one of the most controversial set pieces in cinema. It begins with an argument that turns into a fight, a fight that turns into a murder (or a justifiable homicide – it’s all about how you see it), a murder that leads to the destruction of a building, a destruction that leads to a riot. The horror (and brilliance) of the scene is that Spike Lee never makes it clear who is at fault. There are no obvious villains and no well-defined heroes. Everyone’s guilty, but, in an oddly perverse way, everyone is justified.

As the riot progresses, the (mostly white) police and fire department officials issue verbal warnings for the (mostly black) crowd to disperse. When they don’t, the firefighters turn their hoses on the crowd, which sets Mother Sister off into a bout of hysteria. She screams and screams, desperately howling “No! No! No!” at the top of her lungs. But these screams aren’t an effort to get the firefighters to stop. They’re far deeper than that. These screams are a cry of defeat. Defeat acknowledging that, just 26 years prior, firefighters killed black people in Birmingham, Alabama by spraying water at them with fire hoses. Defeat that, here, on this hot and riotous block in Brooklyn, progress for Civil Rights has vanished in an instant.

Defeat that we, as a society, have learned nothing.

Using a fire hose in this way is a symbol. A symbol that will, shamefully, be forever engrained in American culture. To commit the act now (or in 1989, the year of the film’s release) is to refute the progress that was made, and the people who died making it. Mother Sister knows this. But, moreover, Ruby Dee knows this. When I watch this scene, I’m not watching a character in a movie cry afoul, I’m watching an actual woman scream for all that is wrong. Scream for all she fought for, and all she lost. It was the moment of Dee’s creative career; something that will never fail to bring tears to my eyes.

The morning after the riot, when the dust has settled and the flames have died, Mother Sister shares a tender moment with her unrequited love, Da Mayor (played by Dee’s longtime husband, Ossie Davis). Mother Sister warmly tells him that she’s glad he escaped danger in the riot. “Hope the block is still standing,” Da Mayor says. “We’re still standing,” Mother Sister replies. Yes, my dear, you certainly are.

21 comments:

  1. Bravo, my friend. Bravo. This is an amazing piece of film and societal analysis.

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    1. Thanks buddy. It certainly is, isn't it? One of the best conversation-starting films I've ever seen. Incredible.

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  2. Man, 'Do The Right Thing' is so powerful. What a great film.

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    1. Definitely. It has never even hinted at losing its power.

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  3. That is a powerful scene and Dee's scream was perfect as it captures how much we as a society have set ourselves back. It's a film that definitely provokes and still has the power to do that which is why it's a great film. Dee will be missed as she was a great lady.

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    1. For sure man. So happy to read your praise of the scene and Dee's worth as a person. What a great lady, indeed.

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  4. I remember when I watched Do the Right Thing for the first time, my mind was completely blown. This scene especially was just so devastating to watch, but like any powerful movie, I just couldn't take my eyes off the screen. Ruby Dee was a fantastic actress and an intelligent and thoughtful person, and she will surely be remembered her contributions to both cinema and the Civil Rights movement. Fantastic essay, Alex!!

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    1. Thanks Aditya! I just loved Ruby Dee, as a person and an actress. At 91, we can all say that she lived a full and influential life. She was one of the great ones.

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    2. Absolutely true. Have you seen her in A Raisin in the Sun? What a performance.

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    3. I have, but not in years. Am definitely going to revisit it ASAP.

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  5. That's a really insightful analysis on a truly memorable scene. The kinds of scene that haunts you, because it's so damn authentic. Ruby Dee will be missed. She was a terrific actress.

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    1. Thanks buddy. This is definitely one haunting scene. Very powerful and poignant. It's impact will never be lost.

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  6. I've never seen Do The Right Thing, but now I need to see this scene for myself.

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    1. Oh please do. It's remarkable. And fucking fearless.

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  7. Lovely piece good sir. Love her in DTRT for sure but to me she'll always be Mama Lucas (though has Dee ever given a bad performance?). Makes me want to go and watch DTRT again.

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    1. Thanks man. And can you believe that the Mama Lucas slap was improvised? Fucking amazing. Ridley and Denzel had no idea she was going to do it. And after the first take, they shot it two more times, just to be safe. But the take in the film is the first take. So incredible.

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  8. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I had to watch this film for my class and as well done as it was I do recall getting into a few disputes about who was at fault. It never occurred to me the film was intentionally designed that way.

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    1. Oh yeah, I wholeheartedly believe that. Lee has said that his intention with the film was to show that no one is guilty and no one is innocent. Everyone has a (very vocal) opinion in the film, but it doesn't make any one person (or group of people) right or wrong. Literally, some of the best post-film discussions I've had in my life were ones that followed this movie.

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  9. Excellent essay man. That scene is flawlessly executed. I really need to watch Do the Right Thing again.

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    1. Thanks bud. This scene really haunts me. Such powerful work from Dee.

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