For new generations, the magic of the movies is film can shape, define and mark our lives often before we ultimately encounter the images or ideas leading to what we will become in the world. So my wide black girl eyes knew Cicely Tyson before I knew Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and more Black writers I would ultimately become known as one of.
But I flailed into early adulthood under a mass-marketed illusion that writing books couldn’t be a real job for a black person who was alive and well. Those–them, me, we, us–were just buried in history books or on posters at Black History Month. The canon was white.
Back then, black households in my small town American displayed white bestsellers or the Bible as books. Then we took our popular culture from music and screens. Slavery (Roots) and Civil Rights (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) were the safest “Black stories” for the networks and studios to repeat. If we did see our black and brown faces in media, and in screen narratives of domestic and romantic lives, we were minimal and scarce. We almost never got to associate cultural phenoms with black people in books.
In bursts Cicely Tyson.
No other screen persona served the general public more as a constant reminder of the stubborn, healthy and diverse black literary world which defied sentencing to invisibility and dismissal as just a trend. She appeared in mainstream and Black-cast films under our heritage’s crucial slavery and Civil Rights thematics, and her most complex roles within and beyond those narratives derived as adaptations of literature. Cicely Tyson achieved this while diversifying in roles by other writers from all backgrounds, regions and genres. She was a special collaborator to African-American men and their signature fictions, with thoughtful performances from two novel adaptations each by Ernest Gaines and Alex Haley, one from Walter Mosley. In fact, Cicely’s world of important black novels and their themes (mass incarceration, family reparations, upward mobility) just kept growing to the joyful proportions we see today, when young people in schools nationwide demonstrate the culture shift: They want black characters, families and adventures in their books.
Fortunately for us all, today’s audiences see just that from writers in numbers Ms. Tyson’s generation only dreamed of.
The literature Ms. Tyson took her most memorable roles from predicted the current wealth of black stories I have now. She recounted the horrible tale of meeting a white journalist who was disturbed to watch a black boy call his father “Daddy” in her 1972 classic film ‘Sounder.’ This match to what his own children called him, and his discomfort with it, told Ms. Tyson she was on the frontline of saving the world from its limited and ignorant impressions of dark bodies. She didn’t disappoint.
The children and young people in my world called our fathers “Daddy,” and I was born five years after the film came out. This family not unlike my own was still my source to find the novel. Tyson’s ‘Roots‘ and ‘Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ also showed me black families, elders and values I hunted down in their books they adapted from. As the resident bookworm and scholar-in-the-making in the American heartland of working class factory and business people, these books and films gave my cerebral demeanor a poignant connection to those around me. I often surprised people to reveal these stories came from books I’d bring home from the library. In a big way, Ms. Tyson conduited knowledge.
With not one controversial or derogatory chapter in her career, she gave women I recognized and would grow into back to ourselves. We have all always loved “Cicely,” always intimate on a first name basis, for her talent. We have loved her more for her fine example.
Please enjoy and share this catalog of Ms. Tyson’s greatest roles drawn from great, classic American literature I hope you seek out soon!
13 Classic American Novels and Plays Cicely Tyson Starred in Onscreen
The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote originally premiered on Broadway in 1953 before adaptation to film. In 2013 and 2014, Cicely joined Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams on Broadway and TV to play in the adventures of senior Carrie Watts, desperate for life from her son and daughter-in-law. One of her last and greatest dramatic roles netted her a 2013 Tony Award.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a 1940 debut novel adapted to film in 1968. Cicely joined the star-studded and Academy Award-nominated cast in one of her earliest roles, as a doctor dying of lung cancer, in a small community of oddballs and loners seeking community and love.
Sounder by William Armstrong is the 1970 story providing my first vivid recollection of Cicely Tyson. Where I come from, ‘Sounder’ is just one of everybody’s favorite films about the bonds between a poor farming family and their dog. The 1972 film adaptation was groundbreaking in its portrayal of the cruelties of America’s criminal justice system against black men on a widespread scale.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines is Ms. Tyson’s best-known work, elevated her to an Emmy win for her multigenerational embodiment of a role seemingly nearly written for her. The classic 1971 novel and 1974 TV miniseries preceded Roots as a family-oriented film intended to show the toll of racism on Blacks in America.
Roots by Alex Haley is a blockbuster classic American novel (1976) and TV miniseries (1977) charting a Black family from peaceful life in Africa, to its kidnapping into slavery in America, unto subsequent generations’ liberation in antebellum America. Tyson’s impact on this multiple Emmy award-winning series comes at the very top: In the first episode in West Africa, she gives birth to the story’s epic hero Kunta Kinte to set the stage for the rest. Then, she exits her stage.
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor is one of my personal favorite adaptations of black women’s fiction (interlinked as stories for Naylor’s 1982 debut). Like Roots, its 1989 miniseries is a Cicely’s micro role, but as a well-to-do mother from upper class Linden Hills, she gives her all to one small scene: a confrontation with her wayward daughter, dreaming to make a difference in hard-pressed Harlem, against all her parents worked for her not to face.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg is a 1987 feel-good classic friendship narrative that pretty much sums up American women’s popular cultural sensibilities in the late 80’s and early 90’s, as Tyson blended seamlessly with an intergenerational clan of eclectic Southern women in the 1991 film adaptation.
Mama Flora’s Family by Alex Haley is Haley’s 1997 posthumous novel completed by a co-writer after his death. This literary saga of sharecroppers and next generations’ frustration with the American Dream arrived to such great celebration a 1998 TV miniseries paired Cicely with Blair Underwood for the first time before The Trip to Bountiful.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines is Cicely’s third contribution to the national conversation about mass incarceration’s toll on Black America, and her second time bringing up a character from Gaines’s mind (the 1993 novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award). In the 1999 adaptation of the novel, she is part of the circle of love surrounding a young man who awaits execution by the electric chair in Louisiana.
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley is a 1997 crime novel set in the tough neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and the all-star cast in the 1998 film adaptation about an ex-con’s life after prison includes Cicely Tyson as Luvia, a big-hearted woman who is a pillar of the community and healer for the main character.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett was a successful 2009 novel but its 2011 film surpassed phenomenon proportions, with controversial Oscar nominations and a win for its best-known stars, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, but Cicely Tyson cameos in this ultimate historical fiction about white America’s use of black women to create their domestic paradises, and her enormous body of definitive work prior to the film may account for far less muted attack for her portrayal of a maid compared to Spencer and Davis.
Alex Cross by James Patterson was evidently not good enough for Dame Tyson. She needed Morgan Freeman’s replacement of the titular detective to be her adopted son Tyler Perry and Perry’s good explanation for why she should play his grandmother in the films (which she’d never heard of), based on one of Patterson’s most longstanding and famous series began in the 1993, still going today.
For 60 years, Cicely Tyson has graced the screen and the stage, enlightening us with her groundbreaking characters, and calls to conscious humility and hope. Her achievements as an actor, her devotion to her faith, and her commitment to advancing equality for all Americans- especially women of color- have touched audiences of multiple generations. From “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” to “Sounder,” to “The Trip to Bountiful,” Cicely Tyson’s performances illuminate the character of our people and the extraordinary possibilities of America.-from the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom Awards Ceremony