The career of Cicely Tyson was long and extraordinary, but also touched with more than a little of “what should have been.” Not because Tyson lacked talent or drive, but because of one simple truth: she was a black actor at a time when onscreen representation for people of color was not just hard to find, it was scarce.
Tyson was both a gifted actor and a striking presence. She first got into show business as a fashion model after being discovered by a photographer for Ebony Magazine. Starting in the mid-50s, Tyson appeared in a handful of films and TV shows in small parts before getting her first significant role in the CBS series East Side/West Side, starring George C. Scott as a crusading social worker. East Side/West Side was ahead of its time, featuring stories on drug abuse, economic inequality, and issues in our educational system. The show was often avoided by sponsors due to its subject matter. Tyson played Scott’s secretary, Jane Foster. She was the first African American to star in a recurring role on a televised drama. Tyson left the show in 1963 after the first season.
It would be another five years before Tyson would score another role in a project of significance, this time as a “domestic” in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. More guest spots on TV would follow and then in 1972, Cicely Tyson broke through in Martin Ritt’s Sounder, a depression-era drama about the struggles of a family of sharecroppers. Tyson and Paul Winfield played the leads and both are a wonder to behold.
As the matriarch who holds the family together, Tyson is resolute and vulnerable in equal measure. It took 15 years in the business and nearly 48 years on earth for Cicely Tyson to get her shot, and when she did, she did not miss. Sounder was not only a financial success, the film also received four Academy Award nominations, including a nod for Tyson as best actress. Tyson would become just the third black woman in Oscar history to be recognized in that category along with Dorothy Dandridge and Diana Ross.
The first time I encountered the work of Cicely Tyson, I was in junior high. An exceedingly thoughtful history teacher of mine showed us The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in class. Tyson plays the title character, a former slave, celebrating her 110th birthday. Based on an Ernest J. Gaines novel and set in Louisiana in the 1960s, the film was one of the first made-for-TV films that focused on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. The film debuted on CBS in January of 1974, a full three years before Roots. A reporter, played by Michael Murphy, coaxes a series of interviews out of Jane and she shares with him the full width and breadth of her extraordinary life.
For her performance, Tyson was given the Emmy for best actress in a televised film. It’s hard to imagine what the point of having four other nominees that year might have been. The role asked Tyson to cover a massive expanse of years and emotional turmoil. In the final scene of the film, Pittman is shown walking her more than a century old bones to a “whites only” drinking fountain. As she hobbles toward the fountain, we wait to see if the peckerwood sheriff or any of his deputies will stop her. No one does. And as she is lifted by family members onto the back of a pickup truck and driven away, you see the journalist regard this tiny old woman with awe. I think his expression spoke for those watching the film as well.
Of course, the trouble with being a trailblazer is that you must make a path because there is no path laid out for you. And despite her twin successes on both film and television, Tyson didn’t spring forward to greater heights.
That’s not to say that she didn’t deliver many a terrific performance in a number of quality productions (especially on television), it’s just that she should have ascended to the mountaintop where Bette Davis, Meryl Streep, and Cate Blanchett currently reside. Those opportunities were not available to her, and we all know why.
Viola Davis. who worked with Tyson on How To Get Away With Murder, recognized that “why” on her Instagram page last night:
“You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls. You gave me permission to dream….because it was only in my dreams that I could see the possibilities in myself.”
Because of Cicely Tyson, Viola Davis has a path—even if the track still isn’t as wide as it should be.
Near the end of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Murphy’s journalist is pulled off Jane’s story by his editor to cover John Glenn’s rocket launch. The next day, he meets with Jane one last time and tells her he has to leave. It should be quite a coup for Murphy’s character to be chosen by his magazine to report on such a significant event—it’s not everyday a man leaves the earth on a rocket ship, but Murphy’s reporter clearly doesn’t want to go. He’d rather leave the stars to someone else and bask in the presence of Miss Jane Pittman.
If you have ever seen Cicely Tyson onscreen, I suspect you know exactly how he felt.
Cicely Tyson died yesterday. She was 96 years old.