Cicely Tyson: 1924-2021

It looked like Cicely Tyson would go on and on. With the news of his passing yesterday at the remarkable age of 96, we all have to come to terms with what we have lost. It has seen nearly a century of extraordinary change and progress, but also of continuous struggle and resistance. Yet she always maintained her dignity, class and steadfast determination.

What Ms. Tyson wanted to be more than anything else was to be a working actress, and she has been for seven decades. A record like this would be every actor’s dream, and it’s a record that very few people actually achieve. And in this unpredictable endeavor, it couldn’t have been easy to pursue a career with some 95 film and television roles, not to mention his prolific work on stage. This is the result of hard work, a strong belief in her considerable talents, nerves of steel, and the confidence that being a black woman anything was possible.

Like many of those who have accomplished so much, she came from humble beginnings. Born in Harlem in December 1924 to West Indian immigrant parents, she began as a model for Ebony Magazinein the early 1950s, making her film debut in the recently rediscovered low-budget indie B-movie “Carib Gold” starring Ethel Waters and Geoffrey Holder. In a few years, his first two performances in small groups. First, a major role in the French writer / playwright / political activist and ex-prisoner Jean Genetthe controversial satirical play on racism and stereotypes Black people in a casting including Maya Angelou,James earl Jones, the yet neglected revolutionary comedian Geoffrey Cambridge,Roscoe Lee Browne, and Louis Gossett Jr. The play was so successful that for most of the decade it was the longest-running non-Broadway play in New York City.

But it was the second breakthrough that saw Ms. Tyson bring much wider public attention to the 1963-1964 CBS drama “East Side / West Side,” starring George C Scott as a worker. devoted but cynical social worker of New York, confronted with urban crisis and conflict. The show pushed the boundaries of what network censors would allow on air during this time, as the episodes dealt with topics such as racism, prostitution and sexual assault. Tyson played the role of Scott’s secretary, but her character evolved and became a social worker herself. However, his character was taken off the show before the end of the season, when Scott’s character became a congressman’s assistant in a desperate effort to boost the show’s low ratings. Ms. Tyson had made television history. It was the first time that a black woman had played a regular, non-stereotypical role in a television drama series. There had been black women as regulars in TV comedies such as “Amos and Andy” and “Beulah”, but never before in a drama show.

However, there was another groundbreaking controversy regarding Tyson’s role, and that was his hair. She wore a short afro in the show, and keep in mind that in 1963 it was about as drastic and subversive as you could imagine. Very few black women had the audacity to wear their natural hair back then, let alone on a major prime-time television series on a major network. She was protected by the show’s progressive producer David Susskind, but the reaction was fierce, and not only from white viewers, but black women who were particularly offended. It just wasn’t the right thing to do. How were they going to be accepted into majority white society without straightening their hair? The controversy even made the cover of Ebony magazine. But it was her. Intrepid, honest and being what she was without any artifice. She made her own path and either you were with her or you weren’t. She couldn’t be worried. She had to be true to herself. Opponents be damned.

After Tyson was kicked out of the series, she continued her television work doing spots for the “hard years” on many shows such as “Mission Impossible”, “The FBI”, “Gunsmoke” and a performance beautifully nuanced on a now-forgotten episode “La Bill Cosby Show ”(decades before he became persona non grata) a 1970 half-hour CBS comedy-drama in which Cosby played a high school coach. In the episode, Tyson played Cosby’s current girlfriend whom he ends up falling head over heels in love with and only offers to make her refuse by devastating him. The breakup scene is so emotionally charged in a subtle way thanks to the engaged portrayal of Tyson.

There were some amazing film performances around this time as well, like her haunting work in Leo Penn’s intense and risky 1966 film “A Man Called Adam,” in which she played love interest (a rarity in and of itself for most). 1960s black actresses) by Sammy Davis Jr., a tortured, self-destructive jazz trumpeter. Tyson is not a wallflower. She loves and supports Davis deeply, but she knows that he can only help himself when he wants to help himself. (A new 4K restoration Blu-ray of the film will be released next week by Kino Lorber with an additional commentary track by the author of this piece.)

Tyson switched to Robert Ellis Miller’s moving tearjerker “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter,” based on the Carson McCullers‘novel, with Alan arkin like a deaf mute in a small isolated southern town, alone, looking for companionship and looking for other broken people. In the film, Tyson plays the bitter daughter of a local doctor with “daddy issues” until Arkin helps reunite the couple after Tyson’s father finds himself at his most vulnerable point.

But then, of course, there was yet another breakout role coming up in 1973, for which she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. In Martin ritt‘s “SounderTyson played Rebecca, the wife of a sharecropper played by Paul Winfield, who struggles to keep his 1930s Louisiana family and his small farm together as he unfairly serves a prison sentence for stealing food for his family. The emotional heart of the film is their reunion when Winfield returns home to his family, and his unbridled emotional joy at being with him again never fails to move viewers. What makes the movie and this scene even more powerful is the raw honesty of the moment. Tyson not only played a character, but transformed into so many black women through the ages who have endured and remain a tour de force for so many black men and young boys who have been punished, vilified and oppressed just for being black men in America. It is a performance that transcends the play of real human emotion.

“Sounder” is the film that not only skyrocketed his career, but also changed the course and purpose of his life. As she just said in a TV interview last week to promote her newly published and long-awaited autobiography, Just as i am, she recalled a horrific incident during the film’s publicity tour, when an interviewer told her watching the film made her aware of her own racism and said: I was uncomfortable with your oldest son in the movie talking about his dad as dad. I said, “Do you have children and what are their names?” And he said, “They call me daddy” And I said My God! This man thinks that we are not human beings and I decided that I couldn’t afford the luxury of just being an actress and that I would use my career as a platform. To ensure that blacks are seen as human beings. “

What she is talking about is the belief, though it may seem unfair to some today, that black performers and artists of her generation knew they were faced with the responsibility of portraying black greatness in the world. world. Centuries of negative stereotypes, lies and distortions have warped our humanity, and their mission was to correct this narrative. It was a burden that would crack most people under pressure, but she felt it like a call. To show and explore the full range, dimensions, humanity and pride of Blacks. And this is something she took with her characteristic enthusiasm.

She was always careful in the roles she played, and it was never just to be on screen. As she also said in that recent interview, “Whenever I am offered a screenplay, what interests me, who that character was and why did they want me to play him? And when I get to that point where I feel like her skin has adjusted my arm or my mind, then I know there’s something about her.

And that couldn’t be truer for her perhaps greatest cinematic transformation in her tour de force performance in the 1974 CBS film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” directed by John korty and based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, which chronicles the life of a black woman from her years as a slave girl in the South to her old age during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Tyson gave one of the best performances of his entire career, both gentle and full of determination. The final and emotionally heartbreaking scene in which Miss Pittman, after a life of hardship and heartache, with a few small victories along the way, makes an act of defiance against the hard wall of oppression shakes the very foundations. After the first broadcast, it was reported that many viewers found the final scene so emotionally overwhelming that they left their living room to cry. It was never about big showy scenes, but reaching the inner soul of the person she embodied.

Over the decades, Ms. Tyson has continued to work, adding that touch of class that has uplifted everything she found herself in with countless film and television roles, including coming up against the great genius of the gang. drawn Richard pryor in “Bustin ‘Loose”; as pioneering Chicago teacher Marva Collins in “The Story of Marva Collins”; in a mid-90s NBC legal drama series called “Sweet Justice”; and most recently in a recurring role for five seasons on Shonda rhimesABC hit drama “How To Get Away with Murder” Viola Davis“mother. And she’s worked with a wide range of directors including the aforementioned (and still underrated) Martin Ritt, Peter Grenville, the late Michael apted, and even the legend of the golden age of Hollywood George cukor, with several black directors from Michael Schulz to Bill Duke at Tyler perry.

With all the awards and accolades in her life, one thing was for sure, was that she was proud to be a working actress, always looking for the next opportunity to reveal another dimension of herself. There was still that sense of mystery with her. It was nobody’s business. It all depended on his dedication to his art. It was the most important thing. She kept her privacy very private. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago that someone knew his real age. And maybe it was a little bittersweet that his book of memoirs literally came out a few days before his death. It was perfect timing, keeping its secrets until the end.

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