CICELY TYSON – A Relentless Firebrand ?

Hello, Welcome back!

I don’t know if I’m the right person to write anything about the African-Americans , their culture and cinemas. I usually do not even like to separate cinemas based on the community or races it focused on because they are just cinemas for me; just tales about people and their lives. But they exist, so I have to acknowledge it. African-Americans, too have their own cinemas, with an all-black cast, telling the tales of their past struggles and the ones that they are still struggling with, the evolution of their community and everyday lives amongst other things. Why wouldn’t they have their own films? Their community is strong and united, rich in cultures and traditions that they make sure to stay in touch with, unapologetically. They are strong, caring, and loving; fun when they want to be and fierce when they need to be. They need to tell their tales for everyone to hear of them.

They have produced umpteen political leaders, musicians, artists, and actors. One such icon was the actress, Cicely Tyson, who changed the narratives of the African-American cinemas, in her career of seven-decades. She had been around for a long time, until today. Today, she has left for her heavenly abode, at the age of 96 yet it feels it was too early for her to go. Her body of works is so huge yet it feels like it’s not enough. I still wanted to see her back on-screen again and I bet, she would have been working on one more project had she been alive. She’s the type of actor you can never get enough of. 

Ms Tyson was born in Harlem, New York City, USA on December 19, 1924, to Frederica and William Augustine Tyson, both of whom were immigrants from Nevis in the West Indies.

Cicely Tyson with her second husband, Miles Davis.

At age 18, she married Kenneth Franklin in 1942 who had soon abandoned her, leading to the dissolution of their marriage in 1956. She later married jazz trumpeter and composer, Miles Davis on November 26, 1981, and the marriage lasted until only two years before Davis’s death in 1991, due to his heavy involvement with cocaine and volatile tempers.

Ms Tyson was discovered by a photographer for Ebony magazine and became a popular fashion model. Her first acting role was on the NBC series Frontiers of Faith in 1951. She played her first film role in Carib Gold in 1956. She also became the first African American to star in a television drama when she starred in the celebrated series East Side/West Side. But she rose to fame and stardom in 1972 with her portrayal of Rebecca Morgan in the critically acclaimed film SOUNDER, for which she had also been nominated for both the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. Since then, she had left a huge body of works, ranging from her works in  Cinema, Television films and series, Stage Plays, etc.

Usually, I don’t write an article without some planning and procrastinating about it for weeks before I sit down to write them. But not this one. I just woke up to this news and my mind can’t stop thinking about it. I had to write about it. And, I am writing as I reminisce about the times her films changed my horrible state of mood to happy one or to normalcy. When I was younger, silly little troubles would seem huge and took control over my mind; that’s the moment I would just randomly pick any Cicely Tyson film. Following that, 30 mins into watching it, I wouldn’t remember what my trouble was. Plots in her films always seem to have that quality and would keep you hooked to the screen till the end.

Her most notable works include Sounder, The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman, How To Get Away With Murder among others.

Tyson as Ophelia Harkness

The last I had seen of her was of course her portrayal of Mama Ophelia Harkness in the television series, How to get away with Murder. It stars another powerful African-American actor, Viola Davis. I thought Tyson was the only performer who was able to outperform Davis in this series, out of all the other cast members who had more than 5 times the number of scenes she had, in the entire run of the series. I’m glad that the series completed shortly before Tyson’s death because no one could have taken her place. No one could match up to her portrayal of Mama Ophelia, mother to the notorious lawyer, Annalise Keating. You would think Keating was the strongest for being able to stay tight-lipped about the accidental murder her students committed at her place, but her doting mother, Ophelia had spent a lifetime keeping a murder secret, protecting her baby like a tigress protects her cub.

She refused to be cast in any roles of any cinema where black characters are not portrayed with respect. She had insisted that the African-American characters should be portrayed with respect and dignity, no matter what the roles are. She vowed to accept only roles of characters having ‘strength, pride, and dignity’. Owing to her uncompromising attitude towards her vows, she would be out of work for months and years. This brave act of hers also inspired other black actors and gave them the strength to refuse the roles which demeaned the black people.

She was famous for playing strong black women who would be soft as a petal but can put up a tough front and fight if need be. This quality can be seen even in Ophelia, the last role of her career. You could say that she took her crafts seriously until her very last breath.

She had been nominated for all the prestigious awards you could think of. Tyson was the recipient of three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an honorary Academy Award, a BAFTA Award, and a Peabody Award. She won several of them. Yet, when asked about it, she had said that her most important accomplishment happened in 2016 when President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom.

President Obama had once rightly said, “ In her long and extraordinary career, Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”

Did you know of The Role Cicely Tyson waited for 26 years to play?

Watch the embedded youtube video to know how she was once moved by Geraldine Page’s character, Mrs.Watts in the film, TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (1985), and kept dreaming for a role like that. Much to her surprise, the director’s daughter approached her for the same role 26 years later, when she had decided to produce a stage play to be shown as a television film, of the same name and plot, but this time with an all-black cast. The way Tyson is narrating this particular event of her life feels like another movie plot in itself. Her strength, I think, lied in the way she emotes. She was a natural. She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, for this project.

In her remarkable career spanning over seven decades, she played both leading roles as well as supporting roles but all of them were groundbreaking. Time and again, she proved that you needn’t be a lead actor to make a difference in cinema. No matter how much screen time she would get, she would always leave you with an awestruck performance. It won’t be much of a stretch to say that she was able to make a difference with even roles that had just one scene such as her performance in the film, Madea’s Family Reunion, where she shared the screen space with the celebrated African-American poet, Maya Angelou. Angelou also worked with her in 1977 American television mini-series Roots.

Tyson with the renowned poet, Maya Angelou. ( a shot from the film, Madea’s Family Reunion.)

And, she was also a style icon, I dare not forget to mention that! Such class and sophistication in her style.

By the way, do you know what Tyson means?

Google says it means firebrand. Trust Aunt-Google because she is never really wrong.

Okay, and what is a firebrand, you wonder? It’s when someone is known for being wildly devoted to a cause or idea. Someone who wants to change things.

I think it’s more than safe to say that Ms Tyson lived up to her name. She did, unapologetically. She was a relentless firebrand in the world of cinema. At least, that’s what I believe. She paved the way for other African-American actors. She will live through her cinemas, in our hearts and minds.

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