Cicely Tyson died this week at age 96. Her work in film, television, and the stage spanned seven decades. She starred in some 29 movies and in dozens of TV shows, including most recently, “How to Get Away with Murder.” Tyson famously refused to play characters she said demeaned Black women: maids, prostitutes, drug addicts. She also became a powerful symbol for the Black is Beautiful movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
“At the time she was at the height of her career, there weren’t many people who looked like her who were on TV shows, that starred in movies. … She was on island all alone, and it was her philosophy which made her even stand out more,” says Shawn Edwards, film critic for FOX-TV in Kansas City, and co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association.
Because she refused to do demeaning roles, the Black community, especially women, saw her as a positive beacon, Edwards says.
This was a time when new magazines emerged, such as Ebony and Essence, and she often graced those covers, he adds.
“She instilled pride, she instilled hope. And this was at a time when it was really difficult for a lot of Blacks who lived in America to find positivity about their inner selves, and more importantly, their outer selves. And she represented all of that with the characters she chose to portray on stage, in TV series, and in movies. It meant an awful lot to Black America.”
What people don’t give Tyson enough credit for is how she transferred her lessons from the stage to the small and big screens, Edwards says.
“She was absolutely, positively brilliant onstage. … A lot of actors of her time, of her era, really trained and learned the craft of acting … through stage. … There weren’t a lot of opportunities to be in television shows and in movies. And this group of talented individuals, they honed off of one another. And she was brilliant and unique at that. And she took that passion for acting and just took it to a whole different level.”