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Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee - a ninety-minute documentary about Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis, two icons who stood on the principles of a strong family unit, positive artistic representations of “their people,” and undying social activism - is the story of their grandson, a filmmaker coming of age who fears he may dishonor the lives of his iconic grandparents with his contrasting take on their values.

Broken by the loss of his grandfather, Ossie, Ruby’s grandson moves from Atlanta to New York to capture every moment he can with his grandmother on film, only to witness her health fade as she’s rushed to the hospital after her last live performance on Mother’s Day of 2012. With Ruby’s health now in an unpredictable state, and Ossie’s spirit available to him only through old records, the grandson fights to learn from and preserve their values and wisdom while he can.
Ruby’s grandson talks with Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, their former co-stars including Alan Alda and Sidney Poitier, and their peers including Sonia Sanchez, all of whom are very good friends with Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis. Their stories take him back into time, to fighting for justice in Harlem and the deep south, fighting for equality and against McCarthyism on the stages of Broadway, fighting for justice in Hollywood, fighting to keep their family and young children together while traveling the world as actors and activists, and fighting to support civil rights leaders like Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
When Ruby is finally back on her feet, her grandson comes to her and he confesses that his journey to document her and Ossie’s lives has been, in part, key to him reconciling his conflicting views. He avoids marriage, fearing his eventual infidelity will be its demise, he feels ‘their people’ have no right to judge an artist’s work based upon how it serves their socio-political needs, and he doesn’t participate in activism at all. Lovingly, Ruby sits with her grandson and answers his tough questions about her life; questions she wouldn’t answer for anyone other than her family.
Ruby’s words bring him face to face with what drove his grandparents to find strength in their marriage for over 56 years and stand by their ideals for nearly a century. That history forces him to assess his contrasting views as being a possible consequence of the fact he can take his civil rights for granted. “Be not deceived,” his grandfather Ossie says in a recorded message. “The struggle is far from over, so say the ones who died to set you free.”

Ultimately though, he decides, his predicament is not the result of him losing touch with key values he should abide by, hold dear, and work harder to achieve but a sign that ‘their people’ are evolving and balancing between addressing their own needs and taking on a more worldly communal responsibility.
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