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.
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.