Cicely Tyson was a true icon in the entertainment industry. Besides being an Oscar-nominated actor and Tony award winner, she was a true pioneer in the acting community. My first encounter with her work came way back in my grade school years. When I first saw her TV film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” it felt like more than just a history lesson. Her performance was something truly cerebral that allowed me to understand an experience. There’s true honest humanity in the role that reflects on the person and who she was.
“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013. That quote says so much about Tyson as a performer and expresses how against the norm she really was. This fight against the standard started back in the 1970s when women of color started getting very different roles. She was incredibly particular about the roles that she chose. It was this mindset that got her inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977.
What has to be said and admired of Tyson, was how she fought to her beliefs in the harsh entertainment field. She was someone who stuck to the idea of not being cast in a narrative box. She refused to stay in the type of role that was being forced on Black actors of the time. Throughout her career, Tyson stayed in the types of roles for what the industry calls a “character actor.” Many diehard film fans knew her work but it wasn’t until 2011 when she reached out to the mainstream audiences.
When she starred in director Tate Taylor’s film “The Help,” she received many accolades being a part of the ensemble cast. Unlike her early career, you could tell that she was enjoying every role she selected. Two years after the accolades from “The Help” in 2011, she made a grand return to the Broadway stage with the role in Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” which won her the next step in her numerous accolades. They started with a Tony win after a 30-year absence from broadway. It was a role that Tyson notably responded to by playing it again in a Lifetime TV adaptation of the same name.
While being an actress that was consistently working, she was also active in a variety of organizations. Varying from The Human Family institute and American Family Institute, she was always an advocate. Being “picky” as some called it in her choice of roles allowed her to fight for causes that she believed in. She was a fighter for black people and individuals who had been under-represented within the industry.
Even as she reached the age of 96, she was still a loud criticizer of the inadequacies of the industry. Appearing in a variety of content from both film and television, she was able to be incredibly particular about the roles she chose. In the early stages of her career, some would consider that to be her detriment. Thankfully, Tyson persevered and became a performer who was able to be selective, but always picked roles that spoke to her. As someone who’s only skimmed the legacy of this massive talent, I can’t wait to read her memoir “Just As I Am.” Cicely Tyson was more than just an actress, she was a fighter and advocate for what she believed in.