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.
- 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
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.