It has been reported that the trailblazer, African American star of television and film Cicely Tyson, has died at age 96. With a career spanning seven decades, the ag- defying beauty made irreversible changes in the way Black actors were portrayed on screen by being unapologetically proud of her ancestry and wearing natural and Africa- inspired hairstyles in the ‘70s, when Black women Hollywood were under pressure to embrace more Eurocentric styles.
Born in 1924, the east Harlem native grew to become a leader in the Black is Beautiful Movement, though she did not participate in the Blaxploitation film craze in the 1970s, but opted to push the boundaries of Black beauty and fashion in mainstream realms of film and television. She was a winner, a successful actress and activist in her own right, and her career was championed by fans, popular magazines and media outlets who loved her mix of Black power and regal, stately grace and class.
But Tyson never forgot the roots from which she came. She helped to create the Dance Theater of Harlem with Arthur Mitchell in 1968. And her childhood apartment building in East Harlem was named after her in 1994, which was rehabilitated to house 58 low income families.
Out of high school she became a model and graced the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. As an actress, she began her career in 1959 by acting in the Harry Belafonte film “Odds Against Tomorrow,” then flowed into roles in a string of films, “The Last Angry Man (1959), “A Man Called Adam” (1966), “The Comedians” (1967), and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968).”
She is best known for her powerful and emotionally penetrating performance as a former slave, Jane Pittman in the 1974 CBS special, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which earned her an Emmy award. Tyson played a 110-year-old woman who gave her account of life as a former slave and daring Black woman who rebelled against racism her entire life.
Two years before, in 1972, she received an Oscar nomination for her performance in “Sounder,” playing a wife whose husband was jailed after stealing food to support his family. Her character, Rebecca, gave all she had to work and provide as a single mother, illustrating the strength and resilience of Black women surviving in unequal and perilous times.
Tyson continued her career playing memorable and Afrocentrically important roles ,such as Kunta Kinte’s mother Binta in Alex Haley’s “Roots” (1977), portraying Coretta Scott King in the NBC mini-series“King,” in 1978 as Harriet Tubman, in “A Woman Called Moses” (1978), and received an Emmy for her performance as Castalia in the mini-series “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” (1994). In her later career, she appeared in three episodes of “House of Cards” (2016) and in several episodes of ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” (2015-2019) for which she was nominated for several awards including a number of Emmys.
Tyson showed no signs of slowing down right up to her death as her new book, “Just As I Am: A Memoir,” was published on January 26, 2021 offering a deep and personal look into a career that is unmatched and delivered with poise and dignity.