Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Davis, Ossie (1917–2005)
From Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice

Ossie Davis was one of the most renowned African American personalities in modern American culture, as well as a passionate advocate for social justice. As an actor, playwright, producer, and director, he not only enriched American life through the excellence of his theatrical and cinematic achievements, but also helped transform it along the lines of multicultural humanism.

Davis studied playwriting at Howard University in Washington and then moved to New York to pursue acting under Lloyd Richards. He forged friendships with Father Divine, W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. Davis joined the Rose McClendon Players and first appeared in Joy Exceeding Glory in Harlem in 1941.

Back from military service after World War II, he made his debut on Broadway in Jeb, where he played the title role of a returning soldier who faces racist attacks. He became distinguished for roles dealing with racial injustice and imbued with dignity.

In 1959, he starred on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. It was named best American play of that year by the New York Drama Critics Circle. In such other notable stage performances as No Time for Sergeants, The Wisteria Trees, Green Pastures, Jamaica, Ballad for Bimshire, The Zulu and the Zayda, and I’m Not Rappaport, he brilliantly articulated the pride, the hope, and the suffering of being black in America.

Davis’s first movie role was in No Way Out in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s lauded story of racial hatred, starring Sidney Poitier. His television debut was in 1955 in The Emperor Jones. He wrote and directed Cotton Comes to Harlem in 1970, one of the first “blaxploitation”films (a genre that refashioned black characterization), and many other films. His breakthrough as a playwright came in 1961 with Purlie Victorious, a satire on racial stereotypes. For Us the Living: The Story of Medgar Evers is among his best-known television films.

Davis was married to fellow actress Ruby Dee. They became a revered couple of the American stage, two of the most prolific and courageous artists in American culture, and two of the most prominent black role models in Hollywood. Throughout their careers, Davis and Dee worked toward overcoming racial exclusion in the entertainment world and helped open new opportunities for African American actors.

In the 1950s, the couple was nearly blacklisted for protesting the communist witch-hunting of McCarthyism. They raised legal fees for black victims of racial injustices and spoke out on such issues as voting rights and police brutality. The two were among the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. Two years later, Davis delivered a memorable eulogy for his assassinated friend, Malcolm X. Davis supported progressive causes until his death.

    See also
  • Activism, Social and Political; Advocacy; Civil Rights Movement; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Evers, Medgar; Film; Hansberry, Lorraine; Hollywood Blacklists; Hughes, Langston; Malcolm X; Multiculturalism

Further Readings
  • Cutler, J. K. (1999). Struggles for representation: African American documentary film and video. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Davis, O.; Dee, R. (1998). With Ossie and Ruby: In this life together. New York: Morrow.
  • Donalson, M. (2003). Black directors in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Hill, E. G.; Hatch, J. V. (2003). A history of African American theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rhines, J. A. (1996). Black film/white money. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Emilia Ilieva

    Lennox Odiemo-Munara
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Davis, Ossie (1917 - )
    The Cambridge Guide to Theatre

    Davis began acting with the Harlem-based Rose Mcclendon Players and made his Broadway debut in the title role of Jeb ...

    See more from Credo