I had already planned to do a post on Cicely Tyson (b. 1924) for Black History Month, just a couple days from now. But the news of her death yesterday at age 96 makes the matter more pressing for us to honor her.
I am just the right age to have been educated and formed by two key performances of Tyson’s. The first was Sounder (1972), which hit the bullseye for me as an audience member. It was based on a book for young people and had a boy and the eponymous dog at its center, and I was 7 years old when it came out. I was further drawn to it because my grandfather had been a sharecropper during the Great Depression just like the characters in the film. My father’s entire early life was spent picking cotton, just like the boy. Later, I learned that my grandfather had had a decent job and was fired for a small infraction, resulting in this hard existence, which further relates to the reality of the film, a cruel, race and class based society. Paul Winfield’s character is a decent man sent to prison for a minor, understandable theft. Tyson’s character has to hold the farm and the family together during his absence. Both Winfield and Tyson were nominated for Oscars for their performances. Now, the black experience was obviously harder than that of whites in countless ways, but among whites, the lot of tenant farmers was among the hardest of modern times. It’s one of the reasons that I relate much more to stories and characters like these (which tend to be black stories) than plays, movies or stories about the white middle class, and the music of the blues (in this case a soundtrack by Taj Mahal) much more than, say, showtunes. Show Sounder to your kids if you want to teach them about life.
Tyson’s other major film that affected me came right after that, the 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In this extraordinary performance, Tyson played a 110 year old woman, allowing her fictional life to tell the entire story of the black experience from slavery right up through the modern Civil Rights Movement. Written by Tracy Keenan Wynn (Ed Wynn’s grandson) this one has Odetta in it! Like Sounder, I saw this movie multiple times as a kid. Most tellingly, one or two of those times was at school. Which is one of the many reasons the present day and age took me (and I can assume many other people) so deeply by surprise. I had assumed that kids had been taught in school right along to value the importance and necessity of Civil Rights these past several decades. If they haven’t, why not? When did that stop? And if they have been providing it, what does that mean? This large percentage of people were unmoved, indifferent? I don’t understand. Look: I just told you my father was a white sharecropper from the South. You think he wasn’t a deep, dyed in the wool racist? But who are you if you are unmoved by the lives of other people? What is that? The messages of Tyson’s movies actually helped form me. They affected my character. THAT’s the difference education makes, or can make.
When you look at the dates of those two films, another notable detail emerges, She was fighting a cultural BATTLE. There was an avalanche of black representation happening during those years, but it typically came in the form of blaxploitation, a mixed blessing that meant jobs and high visibility for black artists, although usually telling stories about crime in what was then called “the ghetto”, full of stereotypes. The general public was strongly drawn to that affirmation of their own prejudices. Consider the case of the TV sitcom Good Times, inititially pitched to talk about life in Chicago housing projects, but almost instantly diverted into a vehicle for the broad antics of Jimmy “J.J,” Walker with his catchphrase “Dyn-o-mite!” I have always been bugged and embarrassed by lazy stuff like Eddie Murphy’s donkey role in Shrek. Always the sidekick, always in this predictable street voice. I’m not saying the streets don’t exist. But we really ought not to reduce millions of diverse human beings to one, single character time after time after time. So Tyson fought that tide her entire career. She played characters, not stereotypes.
Born in Harlem (during the Harlem Rennaisance, no less) Tyson started out as a fashion model for Ebony and elsewhere. In 1961 she was cast in the landmark American production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, directed by Gene Frankel and featuring the legendary cast of James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Godfrey Cambridge, Lou Gossett Jr, Maya Angelou and Helen Martin. It ran for years. In 1963 she became the first African American to star in a tv drama as a regular on East Side, West Side, a show about urban social workers on which she was second billed to George C. Scott. In 1966 she was in Sammy Davis Jr’s all-star jazz drama A Man Called Adam. In 1969 she was in the New York stage production To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Other notable stuff included The River Niger (1976), Roots (1977), A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich (1978), King (1978, as Coretta Scott King), A Woman Called Moses (1978, as Harriet Tubman), the Richard Pryor comedy Bustin’ Loose (1981), The Marva Collins Story (1981), Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story (1986), the Oprah produced The Women of Brewster Place (1989), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994), the tv series Sweet Justice (1994-95) with Melissa Gilbert, Hoodlum (1997), Riot (1997), Ms. Scrooge (1997), Mama Flora’s Family (1998), A Lesson Before Dying (1999), The Rosa Parks Story (2002), Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), Idlewild (2006), The Help (2011), and the 2014 remake of The Trip to Bountiful (2014). She had been very much back on our radar recently as Viola Davis’s mother on How to Get Away with Murder (2015-2020).
In recent years I had especially relished the fact that Tyson was now age appropriate to play Miss Jane Pittman. She just needed to hang on another 15 years! Really, given all that she had accomplished would that be so much to ask?