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Friday, March 04, 2005

New York Daily News - Ideas & Opinions - Stanley Crouch: Triumph of Ossie Davis

New York Daily News - Ideas & Opinions - Stanley Crouch: Triumph of Ossie Davis: "Triumph of Ossie Davis
Triumph of Ossie Davis

Actor fought to live artfully, creatively and honorably

Ossie Davis, who died last week at 87, could easily be considered either the dean or the grand old man of black American actors. Almost everyone knew his features and could recognize his voice, even if his name did not immediately come to mind. The public had seen him a good number of times, usually in an older part that demanded an avuncular humor, dignity or seasoned fire.

He was, it seemed, always there, but, of course, he was not always there.

Davis was a man who had chosen his path and who stuck to it, no matter the difficulties it presented.

Born in Georgia the same year as Dizzy Gillespie, 1917, Davis was part of a profession quite limited by the racial conventions he encountered in his early years as an actor.

Davis was not allowed the freedom of expression he witnessed in the music of the many jazz singers and instrumentalists whom he met when drawn north to Harlem just before the beginning of World War II.

At that time, America was just coming out of the Great Depression, but was not fully done with its stereotypes of black people as ne'er-do-wells, peasants-as-dumb-as-rocks, and urban dancing fools who were all feet and hips.

Those times were not too kind to Negroes with artistic ambitions in the world of acting, which meant that the second tier of community theaters and second-rate vehicles were offered most.

In the face of those formidable limitations, Davis did well for himself. He worked the "chitlin circuit" of community theater in the first part of his career. But he did not stop there, nor was he stopped by others.

He crossed over into television and film. There he developed a personal style, one that most often sidestepped the stereotypes of the era, as the minstrel tradition largely shriveled away (though it was reborn in reverse during the blaxploitation era of the black gangster and pimp films of the 1970s; and holds a high position in contemporary rap videos).

He brought forward personalities who actually seemed as real as the white characters in the integrated roles that came his way. Davis' great contribution, when all is said and done, is that he made a national treasure of an Afro-American who was culturally marinated in the South.

It was not an easy thing to do because any ethnic type can be limited by the expectations of outsiders as well as the conventions the group itself uses to the point of tedium.

Ossie Davis went far beyond that at his best and, with Ruby Dee, his wife of more than 50 years, he showed the world what a man and a woman can do in the face of terrible limitations.

They can make art whenever they have the chance.

Originally published on February 6, 2005

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