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Cicely Tyson

Showed Audiences The Beauty Of Black Women

As it had in East Side/West Side, Tyson's hairstyle provoked a great deal of comment. In Sounder, she appeared in cornrows, long associated with degrading caricatures of southern blacks, and she was praised for elevating this traditional style to a new level of acceptability. Ellen Holly, a reviewer for the New York Times, commented: "Tyson has always been a lovely actress, easily capable of enameled glamour when it is called for. But here...she passes all of her easy beauty by to give us, at long last, some sense of the profound beauty of millions of black women."

Ms. declared that Tyson had broken new ground in the portrayal of black motherhood: "Before Cicely Tyson's internationally acclaimed portrayal of Rebecca...the three major exceptions to the black mother as mammy were Louise Beavers and Louise Stubbs in the two versions of Imitation of Life in 1934 and 1959 respectively, and Ethel Waters in Pinky, a controversial film of 1949. Even these two stories were less than redeeming. In both, the black child was a fair-skinned daughter passing for white.... These celluloid mulattoes were often played by white actresses and interpreted as likeable, but doomed by that awful drop of black blood.... Cicely Tyson's Rebecca was different. Through her, the American audience was introduced to a typical black mother and wife; hard-working, resilient, vigilant, and above all, sensitive."

The critical acclaim over Sounder had not yet died away when Tyson turned in another world-class performance in the title role of the television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. This fictional account, adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, follows the life of a 110-year-old woman from her childhood in slavery to her old age, when she becomes an active participant in the civil rights movement. The role required Tyson to age some 90 years. An astounding make-up job helped her to achieve this feat, but it could not have been successful without her masterful acting skills. She showed her dedication to the project by enduring as much as six hours of make-up application, then working for up to seven hours in front of the cameras.

The finished film was a triumph that delivered a powerful statement about the struggle of African Americans to achieve economic and political self-determination. Ms. characterized Tyson's acting as "almost eerie in its accuracy. Every gesture was right on target—from the way she walked to the white drinking fountain, her head and hands trembling only from age, to the way she held her mouth as she drank, chewing slightly as if her bridge did not fit properly." New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael declared: "She's an actress, all right, and as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we've got."

Tyson's performances in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won her many accolades, but the entertainment industry itself had changed but little. She continued to seek out challenging, meaningful roles, but few existed for a serious black actress. She gave a very brief performance in the television miniseries Roots as Kunta Kinte's mother, portrayed real-life Chicago educator Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Story, paid tribute to Martin Luther King in the mini-series King, and worked with several other top black actresses in The Women of Brewster Place.

Yet while television offered Tyson more topical material than that being treated in feature films, "sometimes the standard TV-ish quality of TV films...seemed to strand her," in the opinion of Bogle. He continued: "In some cases, too, she appeared either miscast as in King or stuck with a script's undeveloped character as in Roots. Other times as in The Marva Collins Story (1981), she...injected spirit into what was essentially a formula film.... It became distressing to see her cast in meaningless supporting roles in disappointing projects: Acceptable Risks (1986) and Intimate Encounters (1986). Still even here it was interesting and oddly compelling to watch her struggling to invest such material with some intelligence and dramatic flair. She remained a major American dramatic actress for whom the film and then television industries rarely provided the kind of support system (and acting plums) accorded such white stars as Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep." Tyson described her dilemma to the Bergen County Record: "I'm a woman, and I'm black. I wait for roles—first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman. And then," she added, "I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I've really got three strikes against me. So, aren't you amazed I'm still here?"

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Theodosius I to David Watmough Biography - David Watmough comments:Cicely Tyson Biography - Career Began In Modeling, Brought Her Talent To The Stage, Showed Audiences The Beauty Of Black Women - Selected works