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Ruby Dee strikes to conquer

2008 NAACP Chairman's Award

Ruby Dee wasn’t kidding when she laid into Denzel Washington in her final scene in “American Gangster.”

“That was a real slap!” she recalls.

And even though much thought went into it, the slap that this mother delivers to her hoodlum son was, in fact, a last-minute piece of direction from Ridley Scott.

Dee, a major civil-rights activist with her late husband Ossie Davis, Dee grew up in Harlem, the terrain of “American Gangster,” and knew those mothers “who must have closed their eyes to a lot of things. There’s a mixed set of values that permeates everything.”

Dee recalls that her own mother played the horses and numbers. But she was also a schoolteacher, “a strict disciplinarian,” who didn’t allow her children to go to the movies or play in the streets. “So we played on the fire escape,” Dee says. “I saw a lot from that fire escape, including gangster shoot-outs.”

Which brings her to The Slap.

Early in the film’s production, she took Washington aside to tell him, “The only thing that bothers me about the script is that I feel Frank Lucas is being romanticized.” Dee calls the Harlem gangster a “Robin Hood romantic killer,” and as she put it to Washington, “We can’t say that to our kids.”

“All right,” he replied.

Later, Dee wrote him a letter to express her qualms. She thought he he had forgotten about it when, before they shot the big scene, Washington and Scott conferred. Then the helmer walked over to give Dee a bit of new direction. “He suggested maybe that I would slap Denzel at this point,” she recalls.

Few actresses carry the moral weight to signal such a transitional moment with just one gesture. Dee does. “I really can’t say I rehearsed it,” she says. “I came ready for the change. It’s such a part of me. I was no stranger to violence and fear. I’m a Harlem girl.”

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