Last Friday the great actor Ossie Davis passed away at age 87. His accomplishments as a civil rights activist rivaled his considerable success as a performer and filmmaker.
Ossie Davis was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance and a personal friend of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In fact, he eulogized both men at their respective funerals and along with his wife, actress Ruby Dee, he helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. Davis was one of the first Black men in Hollywood to step behind the camera and he directed a number of ground-breaking feature films in the 1970s, most notably COTTON COMES TO HARLEM which played a major role in spawning the blaxploitation movies of that decade. In his later years, Davis frequently collaborated with Spike Lee performing in such films as DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, and GET ON THE BUS. Ossie Davis was an actor of considerable talent, wit, and charisma and as NPR critic Elvis Mitchell observed, had he been born 40 years later, when his activism would have been more palatable to mainstream America, he likely would have achieved the same renown that Will Smith and Denzel Washington enjoy today.
One of my favorite Ossie Davis performances is his work in BUBBA HO-TEP where his comedic talent is on full display. ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s a silly film and it feels almost irreverent to recommend it on the occasion of Ossie DavisÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s passing, but I will anyway, because I like it, and I think it actually has something to say about how the elderly are treated in this country. ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s fitting perhaps, because Ossie Davis never stopped working and enjoyed much of his success later in life. At the time he died he was in the middle of production on a film.
BUBBA HO-TEP is a tall tale, told Texas-style, about an evil mummy (Bubba) who terrorizes the residents of a nursing home. What the mummy doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t know is that Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy happen to be living thereÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âand the King and JFK decide to team up and kick the mummyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s butt. Ossie Davis plays John F. Kennedy and the inimitable Bruce Campbell plays the King. If youÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢re wondering how a Black man can convincingly play JFK, see the movie, Ossie Davis had me believing. ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s crude, but fun, and the DVD has a great audio commentary track where the King himself comments on the picture between munching popcorn and sipping soda. If youÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢re inclined, take a look, and pay your respect to Ossie Davis with your laughter.