In the span of a few days, I watched some of her most lauded performances: her Oscar-nominated lead role in Sounder (1972), the juggernaut television movie The Diary of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), the original version of the miniseries Roots (1977), and the Harriet Tubman biopic two-parter, A Woman Called Moses (1978).
If you know anything about Tyson, you probably know of her outspokenness about choosing roles that projected what she called “positive” Black images. As the Oscar buzz mounted for her Sounder performance, she candidly explained to The New York Times in October 1972: “[The Black woman] has always been the strength of our race, and she has always had to carry the ball. But there has never been a positive image of her.”
Whether playing fictionalized versions of real-life heroes such as Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, and Rosa Parks or everyday Black womenfolk such as Rebecca Morgan, Miss Jane Pittman, Binta Kente, or her unforgettable run opposite Viola Davis on How to Get Away with Murder, Tyson commanded the screen and delivered fully formed Black women characters in a way that had never been seen before on-screen. And her intentionality about the roles she accepted had an unanticipated ripple effect: Tyson effectively spearheaded the conversation about the need for stories that depict the complexity of the inner lives of Black women for American audiences long before it was in vogue.
Tyson was acutely aware of the impact that her pioneering status as one of the United States’ leading actors had on the Black community. But the measure of her impact goes even further than her fight against systemic erasure: she was a once-in-a-generation actor who possessed something that simply can’t be taught. She was storytelling personified.
But the measure of her impact goes even further than her fight against systemic erasure. She was storytelling personified.
After fifteen years of performing for the stage in Harlem and on and off Broadway, in 1972 Tyson scored her first official Hollywood role as the star of Martin Ritt’s critically acclaimed film Sounder. It turned out to be her breakout role, earning her an Academy Award nomination at a time when only one Black actor, Hattie McDaniel, had ever won an Oscar. At forty-seven years old, Tyson stepped into the role of Rebecca Morgan, a character half her age, for the film about a close-knit Black sharecropping family struggling to survive during the Great Depression era. Sounder is emblematic of one of Tyson’s signatures as a performer: delivering dramatic dialogue at a whisper’s volume without diminishing its impact. She injected what at times felt like bursts of wind into her elocution of words, riding her exhale to its absolute end.
In October 1972, the New York Times wrote of Sounder:
Cicely Tyson has always been a lovely actress, easily capable of enameled glamour when it is called for. But here, in “Sounder,” sweating from work under a Southern sun, her kinky hair braided in cornrows or covered with a rag, clothed in hand-me-down dresses that are too large for her and bleached of any identifiable color from a thousand washings, she passes all of her easy beauty by to give us, at long last, some sense of the profound beauty of millions of black women of a certain kind whose tale has almost never been told and whose praises are so wrenchingly seldom sung.1
At long last. The notion of a movie about the inner lives of Black folks that wasn’t about proving the humanity of Black people to a white audience was controversial back in 1972, the vestiges of which still persist in Hollywood today. While promoting the film, Tyson was met with pushback from (mainly white) film critics who were perplexed by how much they identified with a poor Black family during the Great Depression in Louisiana.
At the start of Tyson’s career, movies and television had rarely given audiences the opportunity to see and empathize with Black characters as human beings with the same basic wants and needs as their white counterparts. Her performance forced them to grapple with this unnerving realization, serving as a clear example of the racial empathy gap fifty years before it was coined as a term.2 Decades later, in 2012, she reflected on this during an interview with Oprah: “We, in order to survive in this society, have had to learn them. They have never had to learn us.”3
Another one of Tyson’s specialties was bringing depth to characters in even the most lackluster of films, often elevating these stories beyond their obvious failings. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman broke ratings records and received critical acclaim as one of the first made-for-television movies that carried the kind of fanfare usually reserved for the movie theater. But looking at this 1974 film from a 2021 vantage point, it feels like an almost parodist telling of the complex history of slavery and emancipation, replete with bad makeup and the insertion of a white protagonist not in the eponymous novel. In spite of all this, Tyson—and her five-foot-three frame—truly disappears into her character Miss Jane.
Celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni penned an apt description of Tyson’s performance as the titular elder:
I’ve known old women and women older than that; their shoulder twitches, the shaking hands, the loss of voice, the wobbling voices, the eyes sparkling, the slapping of their knees, the flat tone that never quite asks a question but states an order—Cicely Tyson had them all.4
The scene that’s now tucked away in my mind is when Jane learns of her husband Joe Pittman’s fatal accident, which occurred when he attempted to break a difficult horse. When she sees the horse dragging Joe’s dead body across a field, Jane collapses like a ragdoll straight into a pile of manure, which sticks to her dress as she writhes on the ground. Along with the powerful reverberation of her lower volumes, Tyson also had a habit of repeating a line a few times in a row in rapid succession, imbuing each utterance with a different emotional color.
In a later scene, she confronts a Cajun spy recruited by the Ku Klux Klan to kill her son, Jimmy. “You gon’ kill my boy? You gon’ kill my boy? You gon’ kill my boy?” she repeats; in just a few seconds, she goes from asking with innocence to wielding the line like a weapon. The micro-exhilarations that Tyson pulled off make you lean in and hold your breath.
There’s probably no better example of the power of Tyson’s subtlety than the groundbreaking 1977 television miniseries Roots. As Kunta Kinte’s deferent and regal mother, Binta, Tyson appears only in the first episode of the eight-part series. Nonetheless, she uses her physicality to make a handful of short scenes feel larger than they actually are. While giving birth to Kunta, she works her face into a dynamic flow of facial expressions, and her laboring moans reveal a vulnerability and a tenderness that could’ve easily been traded for something far more stoic. Tyson showed us who Binta was as a person in that moment, and—absent much character development in the script—that reveal ensured that when we see Kunta’s new life unfold in Virginia, we continue to feel the invisible imprint of Binta there too.
Later in her career, we were able to watch Tyson deliver the kind of monologues typically reserved for the stage. In Shonda Rhimes’s Shondaland universe in particular, such monologues are a set piece. As Annalise Keating’s mother, Ophelia, in How to Get Away with Murder, we get to revel in Tyson playing against a worthy scene partner in Academy Award winner Viola Davis. As she combs Annalise’s hair, Ophelia spins what appears to be a long-winded yarn. But in its last few sentences, Tyson deftly reels it all back in, and Annalise’s tears fall like rain. Tyson was truly one of the great modern masters of monologue performance, a modern-day griot in the best sense of the word.
Portraying the often disrespected, if not erased, dignity of Black womanhood is one thing, but repairing the damage of decades of active misrepresentation of Black people is quite another. Tyson was part of an era of Black actors who took it upon themselves to heal the damage of these images, not only to Black people but also to the collective American psyche. Members of this generation didn’t have the luxury of just acting; they also had to be activists, producers, cultural critics, and diplomats. Just as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte helped redefine Black masculinity for a generation of Americans, so too did Tyson make Black femininity and Black female personhood something that American viewers could no longer ignore or disregard.
Portraying the often disrespected, if not erased, dignity of Black womanhood is one thing, but repairing the damage of decades of active misrepresentation of Black people is quite another.
Before the 1970s, Hollywood had never produced serious work about the historical contributions that Black women—like Tubman and King—had made to the nation. We 2021 dwellers may find the typical slavery biopic tiresome, but in 1978 Tyson was the first person to portray Tubman for the screen, and this matters. She basically introduced the archetypal Black biopic heroine into the canon of film and television and made it stick, something that is easy to overlook today. An exceptional performer whose storytelling abilities were bone-deep, Tyson helped free us from the prison of the white supremacist imagination.
In her last televised role, the iconic late actor fittingly played a trailblazing Black actress in her elder years, Miss Luma Lee Langston. By way of this character on the Ava DuVernay–helmed drama Cherish the Day (2020), Cicely Tyson clearly draws on her own life: “It was about not letting other people put me in their boxes ever. You understand that? Boxes are a prison. I’m free.”
Fly free, Ms. Tyson!
1. Ellen Holly, “At Long Last, the Super Sound of ‘Sounder,’” The New York Times, October 15, 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/10/15/archives/at-long-last-the-super-sound-of-sounder.html.
2. Beandrea July, “If You Support Black Lives, Then Watch Black Stories,” Vanity Fair, July 9, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/07/if-white-people-support-black-lives-why-dont-they-watch-black-movies-and-tv-shows.
4. Nikki Giovanni, “‘Jane Pittman’ Fulfilled My Deepest Expectations,” The New York Times, March 3, 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/03/03/archives/-jane-pittman-fulfilled-my-deepest-expectations-television-i-am.html.