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Cicely Tyson in a studio shoot at the time of Sounder in 1972

“Ruth was a lady, and a lady always knows when to leave,” says Cicely Tyson’s Sipsey, in her unmistakable, precisely controlled, emotion-filled voice, comforting the grief-stricken Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) as the pair stand at the deathbed of their friend Ruth (Mary Louise Parker) in Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1991). A scene later, in a single shot at Ruth’s graveside, Tyson viscerally conveys Sipsey’s own grief – an emotion many are experiencing now, at the news of Tyson’s passing at age 96. 

Sipsey is not a large role, but Tyson, with quiet command, fills it to the brim, bringing watchfulness, wry humour and strength to a character who – spoiler alert! – turns out to be the never-discovered murderer of Ruth’s abusive spouse. Stellar and soulful in such supporting turns, Tyson could reach transcendent peaks in her starring roles, many of which distil and explore vital elements of African American experience. 

As Rebecca, the matriarch of a Depression-era Louisiana sharecropper family in Martin Ritt’s Sounder (1972), Tyson goes beyond archetype to create a richly imagined, fully inhabited character. Pauline Kael, in her perceptive review, noted that the actress had “the singular good fortune to play the first great Black heroine on the screen.” But Tyson’s good fortune was undoubtedly the filmmakers’ and the audience’s, too. The piercing cry that erupts from her as she sees her husband (Paul Winfield) returning from prison still cuts to the quick – as haunting a moment as any in 1970s cinema. 

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Sounder (1972)

Tyson’s performance in Sounder garnered several awards, as well as a Best Actress Oscar nomination. She followed it by winning two Emmys for John Korty’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). Korty’s film offered Tyson a golden opportunity – a role spanning the ages of 20 to 110 – and the actress seized it with relish. Tracing the life of the title character from slavery to a Civil Rights demonstration, the film charts an awakening to activism, as Tyson’s Jane takes a drink from a ‘whites-only’ fountain.

Prior to these iconic roles, Tyson had amassed a number of stage and screen credits, including the 1961 Off Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, and the CBS drama East Side/West Side, in which she had the first-ever recurring TV role for a Black actress.

Her route to an acting career was hardly a conventional one, though. Born in 1924 in Harlem to immigrant parents from Nevis, Tyson was working as a secretary when she was spotted by an Ebony magazine editor. So began her career as a fashion model; becoming an icon of Black beauty, Tyson demonstrated the poise and expressiveness that would characterise her performances. Scrupulously avoiding Blaxploitation films, Tyson was always aware of the sociopolitical import of representation. “We Black actresses have played so many prostitutes and drug addicts, always negative,” she said in 1972. “I won’t play that kind of characterless role any more.”

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Roots (1977)

From Roots (1977) to King (1978) to Bustin’ Loose (1981), Tyson showed her versatility in many roles prior to and during the years of her marriage to Miles Davis. More recently, she made several forays into the Tyler Perry universe, and appeared in The Help (2011) and on TV’s How to Get Away with Murder. Her most significant late career triumph was her Tony-awarded return to the stage in the 2013 Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Her beautiful, inventive performance as Carrie Watts was preserved in a fine 2014 TV film of the production. Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, and an honorary Oscar in 2018. 

“I want to feel as if I embodied our humanity so fully that it made us laugh and weep,” Tyson writes in her memoir Just as I Am, reflecting on her legacy. “I want to be recalled as one who squared my shoulders in the service of Black women… who made us walk taller and envision greater for ourselves.” The tributes paid in the days since her death provide ample evidence of the fulfilment of those ambitions. Alongside Tyson’s indelible performances, Just As I Am stands as a testament to an exceptional life and career. The book’s publication just two days before her passing suggests that, consummate actress, inspirational pioneer and a lady to the last, Cicely Tyson knew exactly when to leave.

Cicley Tyson, 19 December 1924 – 28 January 2021.

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