Star of stage and screen, Cicely Tyson is still going at age 96 with a recurring TV series role and no plans to retire. She’s received a Tony Award and several Emmy Awards, and President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2016. Obama quoted Tyson’s own words at the time, where she said of her acting work:
“I would not accept roles unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.”
She’s made a point, since early in her career, of portraying people and characters who have depth and dignity, no matter how few minutes they might be a part of a movie or TV show. Many of these roles have been real historical figures, which helps bring African-American history to a wider audience. So let’s give Cicely Tyson some frock flick love for all she’s done!
Princess Lucenda in “A Bride for Obie Brown,” Here Come the Brides (1970)
Rebecca in Sounder (1972)
In an interview with Behind the Lens, Cicely Tyson explained how this was when she decided what kind of roles she would take:
“I think that I made a very conscious decision the early part of my career when I was doing promotion for ‘Sounder.’ I was at a press conference, and one of the journalists stood up and said, ‘I discovered a bit of prejudice in myself which I had never thought existed.’ And it came about at a moment when Kevin Hooks who played my oldest son called his father “daddy.” And so I asked if he had any children and he says, ‘Yes.’ And point of fact, he had two sons, like I had two sons [in the film]. And I asked, ‘What did they call you?’ He said, ‘Daddy.’ He could not equate the fact that this little black boy was calling this black man daddy like his children were calling him daddy.
It floored me. It absolutely floored me. I just feel it here. I couldn’t believe what the man was saying. I couldn’t believe it. And I thought to myself, ‘This is absolute sheer ignorance.’ I said [to myself], ‘What is the difference? Is he a man just like you are?’ I didn’t say this to him, but I was too stunned to say anything. And then finally I said to him, ‘I have to tell you that I admire your chutzpah.’ And the audience laughed because I had to break it some kind of way. I said, ‘For you to stand up here in the midst of all your peers and make that statement, I really respect you. Because you discovered something about yourself. And in the process, other people here will have the same experience.’
I never forgot that. I made my mind up at that moment, that and one or two other similar experiences, that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. I had to do something that I felt would in some way benefit humankind. And I chose my career as my platform to address causes that I felt I want to change it some way. I went for five years without working. During that time I just went around schools, talking to kids and so on. But I wouldn’t take anything that I felt was degrading in any way. I couldn’t do it.”
Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Binta in “Part I,” Roots (1977)
Coretta Scott King in King (1978)
Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses (1978)
Mrs. Browne in The Women of Brewster Place (1989)
Sipsey in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Castralia in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994)
Stephanie St. Clair in Hoodlum (1997)
Mama Flora in Mama Flora’s Family (1998)
Tante Lou in A Lesson Before Dying (1990)
Leona Edwards McCauley in The Rosa Parks Story (2002)
Mother Hopkins in Idlewild (2006)
Constantine Jefferson in The Help (2011)
In Behind the Lens, Cicely Tyson said of this film:
“I don’t think there are any small roles. And I’ll tell you something, when I did ‘The Help,’ it was two seconds long. When I read a script, and I say this all the time, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my stomach churns, I know it is something I cannot touch. I can’t do it. When I get so excited, my skin [tingles], I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait! Okay?
So when I got the role of Constantine in ‘The Help,’ my agent was somewhat upset because he wanted me to do one of the other leading roles. I said, ‘No no no no no! There’s something very special in this woman and the relationship.’ See, that’s what I got. And when I get that, I know I can try to give it to you, and you will feel the same way that I do. And so I did it and went on about my business. And then all of a sudden I get these calls. ‘My God! That role!’”
Mrs. Watts in The Trip to Bountiful (2014)
What’s your favorite historical costume role performed by Cicely Tyson?