BHM: A True Black Film Heroine, Cicely Tyson


Cicely Tyson in 1973, as seen in the PBS series “American Masters: How It Feels to Be Free.”(Dennis Oulds / PBS)

Tyra Hughes, Editor In Chief

Most people might recognize Cicely Tyson from The Help or being the all knowing, peace bearing grandmother in various Tyler Perry’s films like The Diary of a Mad Black Woman or Madea’s Family Reunion

However, before her many film roles during the ‘10s, film mogul, Cicely Tyson led a 7 decade acting career with outstanding roles in notable films such as The Sounder, Roots, and The Color Purple.

Born on December 19, 1924 and the daughter of  West Indian immigrant parents from Nevis, Cicely Tyson grew up in Harlem, New York with a background of modeling and Off-Broadway acting in her early career.

The perhaps most admirable trait of Cicely Tyson is how selective she was with the roles she played. With each role she took on, Tyson made sure she was portraying a character that would be uplifting to the Black community. Though this devotion made it significantly harder for her to be cast in films early on in her career, her refusal to play the small pool of roles available to Black women that were available says a lot about the film industry during the 60s and 70s as well as the stereotypical roles that actresses most had to settle for.   

“I went for years not working. I guess every two years maybe I’d get a role. Intermittently I’d find something to do. I just would not allow myself not to work.” Tyson said in a 2015 interview.

Actress Cicely Tyson won three Emmy Awards throughout her illustrious career.(Associated Press)

This devotion, however, truly was worth it in the end because it led Tyson to extraordinary roles that portrayed notable Black women in history, and everyday life. At just 40 years old, Cicely Tyson excelled in her role as 110-year-old former slave, Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). Tyson’s extensive research of the civil rights era throughout the production of the film and her method acting earned her two Emmy Awards.

Throughout her life, Tyson has rightfully been rewarded for her contributions to Black film history. In 1977, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and she then went on to be inducted into the 2020 TV Hall of Fame 43 years later.

A true icon of Black history and admired by many in the film industry, Tyson was also named a Kennedy Center honoree  and given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2015.

Cicely Tyson died peacefully in her New York home last month on January 28.