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A tribute to Cicely Tyson – a gifted performer who deserved more

Cicely Tyson (Wikipedia)

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

She was drop-dead talented.

And drop-dead gorgeous.

“She” could’ve been any number of performers – Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll and at least a dozen others.

Cicely Tyson (Wikipedia)

But they all faced the same challenge: no matter how gifted or beautiful they were, they were also Black.

Cicely Tyson, who died last week at age 96, had a remarkable career – a Tony, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Oscar nomination, an honorary Academy Award, three Emmys and a Peabody.  She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

The list goes on forever and yet – purely in terms of her acting career – she could’ve achieved so much more if her skin had been a different color. And she knew it.

“I’m a woman and I’m Black,” she once told a journalist. “I wait for roles – first, to be written for a woman and then, to be written for a Black woman. And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kind of roles I play… Aren’t you amazed I’m still here?”

New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wasn’t.

Cicely Tyson in “The Help”

Writing about Tyson’s portrayal of the poor sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” the role that was both her breakthrough and earned her an Oscar nomination in 1972, Kael noted, “Cicely Tyson plays the first great black heroine on the screen. Her Rebecca was worth waiting for. She is visually extraordinary. Her cry as she runs down the road toward her husband (Paul Winfield) is a phenomenon – something even the most fabled actress might not have dared.”

Such on-screen moments – well, on the big screen – were few and far between.

Again, given the immensity of her gift and the perfection of her features.

Consider this: She won eight NAACP Image Awards, but back in 1981, the award wasn’t given because the only Black actress eligible was Tyson. She was the only Black woman who had a leading role in a feature film that year, in the arguably forgettable, “Bustin’ Loose.”

That’s not to say Tyson didn’t do features, some of them quite delightful (“Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Because of Winn Dixie,” “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”).

Poster of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” with Cicely Tyson

But in general, she found more satisfying roles on stage or, especially, on TV. In “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” she plays a 110-year-woman whose life experiences stretch from slavery to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. She also appeared in the original “Roots,” “The Women of Brewster Place” and had a recurring role in the popular series “How to Get Away with Murder.”

She did Jean Genet. She did Tyler Perry. She worked with two Davis’s – Viola and Sammy. But she never played a mammy or a hot-blooded mulatto. She stood for something, and it was reflected in her choices.

Like Kael, I’ll never forget her eager dash toward the husband who’d just gotten out of prison and was finally returning home. But there’s another passage that, for me, has every bit as much power. At the very end of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” she walks slowly, carefully, determinedly toward what had been a “Whites Only” water fountain. And, as white officers look on, she takes a long, satisfying drink.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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