LOOKING FOR THE MEMORABLE WORKS OF MISS CICELY TYSON?

As we all know that the legendary actress, Miss Cicely Tyson passed away last week at the age of 96. For the past one week, the news of her passing had me hover around her wikipedia and filmography lists to check whether I have missed out on any of her films that are worth watching. To tell you the truth, there aren’t too many films of hers that you can feel like avoiding because all of them are beautiful films even if her role wasn’t that big. I realized that I had missed out on quite a lot of movies of hers even though I had watched the popular ones like Sounder, The Help, Fried Green Tomatoes, How to Get Away with Murder, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion among others. This week I watched  The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman, Mama Flora’s Family,  The Marva Collins Story, etc.

I got the urge to write about her portrayal of the characters in these films but I can’t possibly write about all of these roles so I picked the ones that have carved a special place in my heart and which I believed to be her memorable roles.

  1. Rebecca Morgan in SOUNDER

It is a 1972 American film where she played the role of Rebecca Morgan, a woman whose share-cropper husband has been put to jail for stealing ham to feed the family of 5 and a dog named Sounder. The story initially dealt with the family’s struggle to put food on the table despite working tirelessly until the patriarch of the family stole a ham one day to rescue the children from hunger they felt for days. Following his arrest, all responsibility fell on Rebecca who has to work ridiculously hard, three times as much as her husband to keep the family going.

Miss Tyson’s portrayal of Rebecca was outstanding, to say the least. She didn’t need dialogues to show Rebecca’s struggle. One look at her and you would know whether Rebecca was tired or worried sick, yet she was unable to let herself have a moment of emotional breakdown because she had no time for it. No wonder that she had got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Rebecca.

Did you know the makers of this film had dismissed her at first stating that she was too beautiful for the part? They had to approach her later again when they failed to find anyone suitable for the role. Miss Tyson wasn’t surprised when they came back to her for the part. She had told them that she always knew this role was meant for her so she waited for the makers to realize it.

2. Jane Pittman in THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN

It is a 1974 American television film where she played the role of Jane Pittman, a woman of 110 years old who was formerly a slave. The film is set during the early 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. The film deals with struggles black people faced almost a century after slavery was abolished. When a little girl was arrested for drinking from the segregated water fountain, a journalist came to interview Jane, the only living person from the time slavery wasn’t abolished, to know about the hardships black people faced those days. As she proceeded to tell her life story, the timeline moved between present-day and Jane’s past.

In her 110 years of living, she lost her parents, a boy who she raised as her own son from the age she herself was just about 14, her husband among others. How? Well, they were all killed at different periods over the years, for trying to resist the mistreatment directed at them by the racist white people.

She continued living through it all, raising another rebellious boy, Jimmy who was the son of her friend. She believed that Jimmy would live to see the change that her family died, trying to bring. When Jimmy too , was killed, she felt enraged but not tired of hoping to bring the change. She was distraught at the news of his death but did not break down because death and brutal killing of black people was all she had seen in her 110 years of living. The film ended with her fulfilling a wish of Jimmy which she had refused when he was alive. The wish was for her to go and drink from the water fountain to desegregate it, as a part of a peaceful Civil Rights protest.

The story was fictional but the things portrayed in the film were factual of the time period shown.

3. Marva Collins in THE MARVA COLLINS STORY

It is a 1981 American television film where she played the role of Marva Collins who was a real-life African-American school teacher from Chicago. The film is based on the story of how Marva challenged the educational system followed by the schools in Chicago and the whole of America. She felt that the system was broken and it prevented the children from reaching their full potential. She taught her students the power of thinking independently.

 I loved it so much that I wished I had a teacher like her. Learning is so much fun when the teacher makes it interesting instead of just sticking to reading out loud from the book pages and adding two personal comments to it.

Miss Tyson’s performance garnered her a nomination for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie.

4. Sipsey in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, from left: Mary-Louise Parker, Cicely Tyson, 1991. © Universal / courtesy Everett Collection

It is a 1991 American film where she played the role of Sipsey, an African American woman who worked for Idgie, one of the main characters in the film. Her role was minor but it proved to be a very important role eventually.

The film has a plot and a subplot where Sipsey was a minor character in the sub-plot. The sub-plot was shown as a flashback, focusing on the friendship between Ruth and Idgie at whose house Sipsey worked. One day, police started coming to their place to inquire about the disappearance of Frank, the abusive husband of Ruth, soon after she left him and started living with Igie. Following the discovery of Frank’s truck in a nearby pond, Idgie was suspected and arrested for his murder. Her case was later dismissed at the court and she was released.

She was the most unsuspected character turning out to be the one with the key to the major turning point of the plot. There was a twist at the end when the narrator revealed that it was Sipsey who accidentally killed Frank in self-defense when he was trying to steal his baby from Ruth’s house to get revenge against Idgie and Ruth. Idgie stepped in to help her and her son Big George by hatching a plan to barbecue his body as telling the truth would lead to the arrest of Sipsey because the law wasn’t fair to black people back then. She fed the barbecued meat to the investigator.

Miss Tyson’s portrayal of the role was very impressive. She was known for having a powerful screen presence but this time, she made sure to not draw the slightest attention to her character until the end. In the last of the flashback scene which was set on the day the investigator arrived at their place, Sipsey was shown feeling irritated at the most minor inconveniences until the investigator stopped her to praise the barbecue, saying that it was the best he ever had. That’s when her face brightened, muttering that “ the secret is in the sauce’’ as she walked away happily. The secret of making the dish tasty lied in the sauce recipe, which also masked another secret this time that was fed to the unsuspecting investigator. It was a dark humor that I think very few can show in the manner Miss Tyson did. I noticed she had the ability to tell dark humor without making it sound as twisted as it normally would have sound.

5. Mrs. Carrie Watts in THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL

It is a 2014 American television film. It is based on a 1953 play of the same name. It was made into a film in 1985 by Horton Foote, whose daughter, Hallie Foote remade the film in 2014, but this time with an all-black cast. Miss Tyson also worked in the stage version of it in 2013.

She played the leading role of Carrie Watts, an elderly lady, an aging mother, who lives with her son and daughter-in-law. She felt dissatisfied in her son’s house because her daughter-in-law made living life difficult for her, making her feel like she lost her sense of freedom and dignity. She had one last wish to visit her old home in Bountiful, which was denied to her when she asked her son to take her there. Following his refusal, she escaped from her home and took a bus to Bountiful.  The rest of the plot is about her journey and the people she met during the journey.

6. Mama Ophelia Harkness in HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

It is an American television series that ran from 2015-2020. It is a legal thriller about a notorious criminal lawyer, Annalise Keating who went out of her way to save the people she holds dear to her, including her students who committed accidental murders.

 Miss Tyson played the role of Ophelia Harkness, mother of Annalise. It was a recurring role. She appeared in about only 10-12 episodes but left a lasting impression on the viewers. I think she was the only person to have outperformed Viola Davis in the series.

Annalise was shown to have a love-hate relationship with her mama Ophelia and is often seen trying to get away from her. She later realized how much her mother loved her and felt guilty for having misunderstood her for the major part of her life.

Annalise, whom Ophelia addresses by her birth name, Anna Mae was once consoled by Ophelia saying that she too hid a secret, not telling a soul before her. The secret behind the fire that destroyed Annalise’s childhood home, which also killed her uncle, Clyde. Annalise initially thought she couldn’t have been more different from Ophelia only to realize later that she was in fact exactly the way Ophelia was, except that her mother was emotionally more stronger than her.

Ophelia was a sarcastic person who occasionally engaged in dark humor. As I said a while ago that I cannot think of anybody except Miss Tyson who could portray someone like Ophelia or Sipsey the way she did. This was her specialty. I don’t know what is it about her that sets her apart when it comes to playing a role like this. May be her voice? Maybe it is the way she emotes.

She keeps her acting so subtle. She acts in such a way that you would notice her presence but not any other things such as the strength or the flaws of the character until she decides to show it. She would attract your attention when her character demands it. It’s like she has control over the camera’s eyes even from being in front of the camera.

She knows when to attract and not attract your attention to her yet keeping her character noticed but the importance her character holds will be realized by you the moment she would want you to realize. You can understand this quality of her from her portrayal of the character Rebecca in Sounder, Sipsey in Fried Green Tomatoes, Ophelia in How to Get Away with Murder. She controls the depth of her character. No matter whether she has any dialogue or not, she will let her eyes and body language do the work her character demanded her to do.

Whoopi Goldberg once told Variety, “When you think about artistry and elegance in acting, Cicely Tyson is the first name that comes to mind. When you watch her work and you see her on stage or on screen, you always know it’s going to be a thoughtful performance.”

But I would like to add that it was not just a thoughtful performance but you could expect a  thoughtful movie too because that’s how she was. She didn’t just care about her role, she cared about the whole point of the story the movie is telling.

I think that being an actress is not just about having the ability to perform well but you also need to have the sense of picking a script that you think is perfect. Miss Tyson sure knew how to select a script. Whether her role was meaty or not, wasn’t of any importance to her; her only condition was that it should be a character with dignity. Moreover, the film, especially the plot of the film mattered to her. The story, the morals, and the justification of things all the characters did matter to her. She was a thorough artist who respected the art of cinema way too much to try and rise above the art form, which most artists try to do and end up ruining their career in the long run. Rather than doing all that, she had worked and helped other artists worked side by side, leading to the growth of the art form itself. It is something she took seriously.

I’m sure I’ll miss seeing any new film or tv series that has her name listed in the cast.

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.