One of this year's most anticipated films is the Harlem-heyday epic, American Gangster, starring Academy Award winners: Denzel Washington (Glory, Training Day), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), Russell Crowe (Gladiator) and acclaimed actress, Ms. Ruby Dee (Do The Right Thing, Buck and the Preacher, A Raisin in the Sun and TV's Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters).
Gangster is unequivocally a dramatic masculine platform and Dee (as Mama Lucas) infuses a tasteful balance of feminine prowess, the antithesis of the ego-driven bravado that fuels this intriguing story of real life drug king pin, Frank Lucas (with Washington in the lead role), Mama's favorite son.
As art imitates life, Dee recalls the rigorous days of Harlem– because she lived through them. According to production notes, as a child, Dee lived in an apartment building on 137th Street and 7th Avenue. Of that time, she recalls, “People who looked like Denzel would come to the door in twos or threes, and they would give you a greeting and hand you a shopping bag. In there would be a turkey at Thanksgiving; at Christmas there would be toys.” Only later in life would she learn that they weren't just helpful citizens; there was a “political connection to the gangster element.”
Dee's vivid childhood memories still resonate. She recollects much of that era saying, “Everybody was into something, yes. And the street corner speeches and the wrangling, the riots and also the picket lines. There were these impassioned speakers on street corners. As a girl, I was always holding somebody's hand, chewing gum maybe or with a lollipop and listening to somebody speaking.
“During junior high school my mother would take us out on weekends and on Saturdays and we would be collecting money for the NAACP or for some cause such as anti-lynching. As I got older, there were a whole lot of people that I met, you know, like Marlon Brando and many others that used to hang out in Harlem. Especially if there'd been some frightening activity or some political thing.
“I wish I could remember more specifically, but it seemed as natural as getting up in the morning or the air you breathe, and 'what was gonna happen today,' you know? And, I even remember, saving my pennies because I knew one day I was gonna have to run away. So, I had this money I'd put in a little jar behind the piano, this upright piano, because everybody had a piano. I don't know, at least we did because my stepmother, that is, we moved to a good address.”
However, it appears in another part of town, things were different, “They (the gangsters) didn't have their racket someplace else and exploit the community. They lived where they worked, in other words. Uh, the prostitution, the gambling and so on, all that I understand went on but they controlled the neighborhood. So, it had a different feeling. We didn't live there. We lived outside.
“So, at Christmastime, the gangsters went around to the places in Harlem and they would give baskets at Christmas and turkeys at Thanksgiving. And my mother…we were one of the recipients of those (such) things. And, I remember that this was explained to me later. The gangsters who lived in Harlem, they would rent places like the Armory and the kids came there and got candy at Christmas, you know, we lined up. I remember those things.”
During opening sequences of Gangster, the filmmakers drew upon the era of Ms. Dee's childhood Harlem, although the body of this retelling was shot on location in New York and Thailand and spans the years during the height of the Vietnam War, 1968-1974, which is closer to the story's timeline.
Lauded for her artistic contributions, the widow of acclaimed counterpart Ossie Davis is the recipient of the John F. Kennedy Center Honors and Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award, and served as inspiration to many of those on set of Gangster. For the Harlem native, revisiting the world of her youth proved helpful insight for all with whom she worked.
The actress notes, “The time of Frank Lucas that American Gangster is about doesn't seem as much of a film to me as it does more of a memory. Gangsters played a very important role in the life of the community, because they were part of the community. They controlled the rackets.”
If you're open to ideas Hollywood, I hope to see a film about the life of Ruby Dee: her life and her stories are fascinating.