Press "Enter" to skip to content

Celebrating Black Artists in Black History Month: Ossie Davis (1917-2005)

Mills College Weekly

On Feb. 4, 2005, America lost one of its true original voices in the arts. If one heard Ossie Davis’ voice, it was hard to forget it.Strong and warm, it was a voice that demanded your attention. Davis’ voice could take different tones; it could be warm and wistful, as when he provided voice-over narration on the television show Evening Shade; or proud and patriotic, as when he was the Master of Ceremonies at the Memorial Day concert in Washington, D.C.; or it could sound angry, frustrated, as when he gave the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral or spoke out against the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Davis first came into prominence when he took over the part of Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, which Sidney Poitier originated. As hard as it was to step into someone else’s shoes, Davis did it, and provided encouragement when Sean Coombs took over the role over 45 years later: “Ossie motivated me to take a leap of faith when I became Walter Lee Younger every night at eight o’clock sharp.” Davis went on to write and direct several films on his own, including the film Purlie Victorius, which was later made into a musical called Purlie! He also wrote a children’s book, Just Like Martin, and a book with his wife of 56 years, actress Ruby Dee.“As we went along, we became aware of something,” Davis said about his marriage to Dee in 1998. “It was from the struggle itself that we gained our true identity. It was the struggle itself that gave us cause to stay together as long as we have.”He also starred in several Spike Lee films with Dee. Be it giving Spike Lee’s character unwanted advice in Do The Right Thing, or confronting his crack-addicted son played by Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever, Davis brought a dignity to these roles, a quiet dignity that showed that life hadn’t been fair to the men he played, but they weren’t willing to give up on life just yet.Working both with Davis and Dee, who had been married for 56 years, prompted Spike Lee to say, “When I get married, I want my marriage to be like theirs.” In the Kennedy Center Honors awards held a month before Davis died, actor Courtney Vance read the words Dee wrote once about her marriage: “We learned how to belong to the people for whom we played for, mainly black people. They were the audience that never made us rich, but never let us down.”Davis was found in his hotel room by his grandson, while shooting the film Retirement with Jack Warden, Peter Falk and George Segal. The irony of the title is that Ossie Davis never retired, and his voice will never retire: it will live on in his films, TV shows and his writing.