When Ruby Dee got the call from her agent about a role in “American Gangster,” it jarred her memory.
She lived in Harlem during the 1960s, a period when legendary mob boss Bumpy Johnson ruled the neighborhood. Johnson dies at the beginning of the Ridley Scott-directed film, and that void is quickly filled by his longtime driver, Frank Lucas.
“I grew up there. So much of that was who I was, where I came from,” explains Dee, who plays the mother of Denzel Washington’s Lucas. “Not so much the criminal element, of course, but I felt surrounded by it. It was part of my subconscious being: also being around numbers runners; not being able to borrow money from banks; entertainers and athletes who couldn’t sleep downtown, so they came to stay in Harlem.
“Gangsters lived in the neighborhood. They weren’t apart from it. Their relationships with people were both benevolent and scary.”
She says she doesn’t remember much about Lucas but certainly his predecessor.
“Bumpy was in my consciousness,” she recalls. “Everybody knew Bumpy. The whole atmosphere of the neighborhood changed when Bumpy died, because he was such a big figure.”
As Mama Lucas, Dee had to embrace a character who had a mother’s fierce faith in her son — al least for most of the film — even though deep down she became concerned about his nefarious activities. Dee says she drew upon her experiences as an African-American growing up in the city.
“Expectations were low,” she explains. “I think she turned a blind eye to what was happening. She was happy not paying attention.”
Dee observes how difficult it was being a parent in that era, with so much crime going on all around. Yet, the strength of a mother in the face of those conditions was vitally important in convincing Harlem’s youth that there was a future that didn’t involve drugs and various criminal activities.
“You learn what a parent is — someone who lays down the law and sets the standards. The tenor of the times takes that responsibility and distorts it in a way and overrides it and puts other value systems over the rights of the parents to rule their children.”
Eventually in the film, Mama Lucas has enough and confronts Frank about his criminal ways.
“It was a fantastic thing that she tried to make a difference,” Dee says, “but she finds out almost too late.”
Favorite film: “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Young actor you admire: “I think of Angela Bassett, Alicia Keys, Jeffrey Wright, Ruben Santiago-Hudson.”
What you want in a director: “I’m an actor who appreciates direction. I respect the fact that a director has studied the text and the road map of work before us, the subtleties, interconnections, underpinnings. … His job is to paint the entire picture and knows all the colors that have to be in it.”
Vice: “Love, even if it’s misplaced sometimes, but to keep on loving. That can get you in trouble sometimes, but it’s worth the risk.”